Language-wise, that is.
A question I’ve been increasingly puzzling over lately is whether, and if yes, to what degree, we non-native speakers have a legitimate claim to sprachgefühl# in our second language(s): The process of becoming more fluent and idiomatically correct in whatever tongue we have immersed ourselves in comes with a greater and greater acumen when making instinctive lexical and grammatical choices.# Our judgements may not be strictly speaking pertinent to the study of, say, contemporary English; still we can’t help making them.
Now, I’d be quite happy to be a second-class citizen of the Republic of Anglophonia (and that of Francophonia). It’s the rules linguistic analysis plays by, after all, that decree that my idiolect doesn’t count to the same extent as that of any native speaker. And that’s fine with me. However, I have passed the point where my ideas about what is grammatical or not are merely the quaint observations of a neophyte. Is there any Bill of Rights that says what conditions and restrictions are placed on my staying permit, or when I can put forward my opinion, however insignificant, and when I have to bow to a native speaker’s intuition?
These were the thoughts that went through my mind when I stumbled upon a sentence in a Guardian article and had an involuntary grammatical WTF reaction (see also here):
But the naming of Best was delayed so that his lawyers could make today’s last ditch bid to remain anonymous.
The problem with this sentence is not quite the same as the hang-ups of the dangling modifier type. The dangling part is not a modifier, for starters, but it is at least an adjectival.# The messy bit (”to remain anonymous”) does, however, somewhat resemble an attachment ambiguity, in that the subject of the predicate /remain anonymous/ needs to be inferred from the context.
In constructions of the type
- X makes a bid/request/choice/pledge/etc. TO VERB_BASE (+ required elements to complete the predicate)
the subject of the last verb is, according to my grammatical feeling, expected to be the same as that of the verb phrase “makes a bid/request/choice/pledge/etc.” Which, in this case, is “his (young Mr Best’s) lawyers” — obviously not the intended reading. It’s Mr Best who wants to remain anonymous, not his lawyers.
There are several ways to fix this. Let’s look at two candidates:
- But the naming of Best was delayed so that his lawyers could make today’s last ditch bid for him to remain anonymous.
- But the naming of Best was delayed so that, today, his lawyers could submit his last ditch bid to remain anonymous.
The first one is “grammar manual English”, i.e. the way I would rewrite the sentence by drawing on what I have been taught, including implicitly via literature and other bits of “exemplary” English. This, per se, doesn’t make 1. questionable by any stretch of the imagination. A possible point of contention might arise from reading the newly introduced “for him” as belonging to “made today’s last bid [for him]” instead of to “[for him] to remain anonymous”.
Yet literary standard English isn’t the be-all and end-all of grammatical felicity. In the second example I tried to improve on the original sentence without re-introducing the missing subject via the FOR Y TO VERB_BASE construction of 1. The adverb “today” needed shifting around (it could be placed elsewhere in the sentence), there’s a new verb (”make his bid” doesn’t work well for me), and the subject (”Best”) is virtually present as the antecedent of the second “his”, which is much closer to the predicate “remain anonymous” than the nearest reference to the subject was in the original. Two personal pronouns with the same antecedent so close to each other may be considered a bit ugly, though.
So, what’s the verdict on 1. and 2.? Does 2. still elicit a WTF? (I’m kind of okay with it; at least I consider it an improvement.)
And am I out of my depth, swimming out in the ocean instead of the tranquil pond I believe myself to be in?
: Surprisingly, Merriam-Webster Online’s pronunciation sample sounds, apart from a slightly shorter /a/, nearly identical to the pronunciation of the word in standard German.
: In my experience, non-native speaker judgement (mine, anyway) tends to have more false negatives than false positives. In other words, I am more likely to feel that a sample that is rejected as ungrammatical by native speakers might not be that bad after all than to be weirded out by one they consider fine.
: All right, I’m not quite sure about this. My terminology is a bit shaky and tends to get confused by the simultaneous presence of several terminogical systems.