Discursive stowaways and human logic (dangling participles part 2)

Dangling participles are less ambiguous than style manuals would have you believe.  They are subject to the same basic rule that governs all modifiers – namely, that human readers with functioning representations of the real world will give them the most plausible interpretations and move on.  At worst, they are just like a lot of adverbials or adjective clauses in that they could conceivably refer to multiple parts of the sentence.  More often, danging participles in common use are essentially idioms with set meanings, whether or not they share a subject with the main clause.  These are the ones you hear on the evening news – keep an ear out and you’ll catch quite a few.

I put together another survey after the last one to further investigate what may make a dangling participle seem more comprehensible or clear besides having the subject of the main clause as its subject.  Specifically, I was interested in a few things that seemed to be the most common implied subjects, and whether using these reliably made a dangling participle more comprehensible than other implied subjects.  My conclusion was not what I had expected.

If that hasn’t already put you to sleep, read on.

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The professional unprofessional

I regard myself as the most professional when I’m acting in ways that are seen as vaguely unprofessional.  Contrarily, if everyone from administration down to new students seems to be regarding me as a consummate professional with everything under control and nothing left to chance, I feel as if I must be doing something wrong.

Part of this is unambiguously a result of modern training in language teaching with all its student-centeredness, communicativity, and insistence on relevance to real needs.  Not many teachers educated since the Krashen days see language teaching as a matter of verbally transmitting the rules of grammar.  But students often want teachers who appeal to their conscious and rational minds, and teachers respect each other for their grasp of effete theory and ability to maintain control of a room.  On the other hand, asking a class to generate discourse by itself or choose topics close to them, taking long stretches of class time simply to listen to students negotiate with each other, is seen by many students and some teachers as abandoning your professional authority and objectivity.  Ironically, greater professional investment in the current field of TESOL, which correlates with greater commitment to student-centered norms, leads students and colleagues to expect to gain more from you simply by listening, leading to still more disappointment when you seem to cede the floor to someone still figuring out “are” and “is” (see Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context for a specific example of this effect).  Here, our training seems designed to disappoint anyone who comes into a classroom to “learn” in a traditional sense.  I believe most language teachers come across this conundrum often in their careers, more if they lean heavily to the Dogme side of CLT and especially more if their students see didacticism as a sign of seriousness.

With fellow teachers too, I feel a need to have conversations go slightly awkwardly to confirm to myself that I am taking an appropriately circumspect distance from the norms of my field.  Besides the list of expressions the ended one of my recent posts, I find that their are surprisingly few terms that language teachers use that I can accept exactly as intended, because I don’t think the term accurately describes what people usually take it as.  For instance, one that came up in a bit of downtime discussion with a colleague in the language lab today was “grammar teaching” (which we agreed should always be surrounded by scare quotes).  In my view, “teaching” can only practically mean doing the things that bring cause people to improve in the area whose noun premodifies “teaching”.  E.g., “surfing teaching” most intuitively means teaching people skills relevant to being able to surf, not some other skill tangentially related to surfing, such as musculature or the physics of erosion.  Since the endpoint we want to reach with students with respect to grammar is (mostly) unconscious application of the rules, such as they are, in real-time or at least real-world situations, how can we call the explicit teaching of grammar rules “grammar teaching”, when that is the thing we are all trained in our MA programs to know doesn’t demonstrably lead to that endpoint?  I’m not convinced that my answer to this question is the only acceptable one, but I’m far less convinced that the term “grammar teaching” should be tossed about as if we all agreed that teaching metalanguage and focusing on formS were the way to go.

So when I hear someone use this arguably commonsense term, I often ask what they mean, which in professional language teaching situations is sort of the equivalent of a volleyball player asking what you mean when you say “serve”.  I think I leave a lot of colleagues with the alternating impressions that I know a lot and that I don’t know anything (sometimes this impression requires little effort).  I do this because I have professional pride in not taking terms and practices for granted, especially if they are as common as “grammar”.  My unprofessional inability to smoothly carry on conversations on language teaching is a point of pride for me as a professional language teacher.  As is my ability to recognize but not care about split infinitives.

In the classroom, there are ways to work around being seen as unprofessional, and they will placate some students.  I found that with my ESL students last semester, if I took a significant piece of class time to explain (with reference to research) why I don’t see much merit in going through the grammar textbook chapter by chapter or stopping to explain every new word in a reading textbook written at the i^2 level, they would generally come along for the ride, bumps and all (as opposed to before, when what I thought were interesting tangents were generally seen as undisciplined diversions from the coursebook).   And the bumps are much more important than a smooth but unremarkable ride.  I tend to think that in a few years the bumps are all they’ll remember.

Ironically in a field (ideally) focused on creating unconscious and automatic mastery, I often feel I’m in the business of making memories, albeit memories of a particular type and as a scaffold for particular things I want them to know.  If I don’t have their attention and they won’t remember what we did that day, I feel like I wasted their time, even if a random passerby peeking into the classroom would have seen something that strongly resembled “teaching”.  I seldom find that the way to create memories is by rigorously following a PPP lesson plan (or “teaching grammar”).  In order to fulfill my duties and see myself as a teacher, I sometimes need to look conspicuously unlike most people’s conception of one.


The simple past in simplified history

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow dog-owner, who happened to be an Indian nationalist [Edit: Apparently the term for people of this persuasion is “Hindu nationalist”, not “Indian nationalist”.  Thanks Adi Rajan], at the dog park.  My interlocutor was recounting some of the wrongs that had been visited on Hindus in India by foreign conquerers, and he described how one named Aurangzeb had a particularly bad habit of tearing down Hindu places of worship and replacing them with mosques.  As it happened I had just finished reading Atrocities again and was sort of on the same page mentally, or at least more prepared than average to hear stories of Mughal emperors sweeping armies across the subcontinent, disrupting agriculture and failing to plan for floods, and generally causing a kind of misery that has political power hundreds of years into the future.  Oh, and don’t ask me how we got on the topic.

You might be wondering why the parasol-bearer is so badly failing at his job.  Actually, what he’s holding aloft is a massive lemon meringue pie, which Mughal emperors would order baked after a successful military campaign as a show of strength.

Anyway, he mentioned one countermeasure that Hindus took during Aurangzeb’s reign to at least be pillaged on their own terms.  As was explained to us, it was (is?) normal in Hinduism to cremate bodies soon after death, so that the soul didn’t have anything in this world to cling to when it has to move on.  In the case of holy men, upon (physical) death the bodies were kept and/or preserved rather than cremated.  This was, of course, because holy men’s souls can move independently of their bodies.  Holy men’s mummified corpses from that era would presumably still be on hand if observant Hindus hadn’t taken it upon themselves to cremate them as well during Aurangzeb’s reign, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Muslim conquerers, in a bit of proactive self-desecration. This was, according to the man at the dog park, characteristic of Hindus, who always sought to keep their faith pure.

I got to thinking about how common this practice (let’s call it proactive saint cremation, or PSC) could really have been, as part of my usual ruminations on how in the creation of a group narrative, “a few people did it” turns into “people did it” and then “we did it collectively displaying the unique characteristics of our people”.

I realized that some semantic properties of the “simple past” (scare quotes for bad naming – it’s no more “simple” than the “simple present”) might enable this transition.  Namely, the blurriness of the simple past with respect to whether it refers to a single event or a stereotyped, repeated event facilitates the transition of historical occurrences from discrete to characteristic of a people, place, or time period.  The fact that the adverbials that serve distinguish the simple past for single occurrences from the simple past for repeated occurrences are easily discarded is of significance as well, as well as other qualifiers on the noun subject which are often grammatically inessential.

For example, let’s say this is a historically justifiable statement:

Ruling Muslims from the upper class ordered Hindu monuments destroyed in 1699.

(I’m not saying that this sentence is true – just using it as an example)

With the adverbial prepositional phrase removed, it is easily interpretable as referring to a repeated action.

Ruling Muslims from the upper class ordered Hindu monuments destroyed.

And with all the grammatically inessential (i.e., non-head) information removed from the subject noun phrase,

Muslims ordered Hindu monuments destroyed.

It would be plausible for someone just joining the conversation at this point to hear a blanket indictment of Muslims rather than a description of a particular historical event.

Now, part of what makes this possible is the particular grammatical feature of English that the same verb form, the badly-named simple past, works both as a past version of the simple present (i.e., it paints the subject with a stereotyped action occurring at no particular time, like “dogs bark”) and as a reference to a single action taking place at a specific time (which the simple present does as well, but less often – see “he shoots, he scores” or “I arrive at 6 PM”).  Of course, if you want to be very specific about the fact that an action was repeated, you could use alternatives like “Hindus used to burn their dead” or “Holy men would be preserved instead”, but the simple past in the absence of qualifying adverbials leaves either interpretation open, and therefore makes extension of historical events from single and limited to common and characteristic very tempting.

Also driving this, of course, is the omnipresent impulse to narrativize one’s national history and define one’s or someone else’s ethnic group with characteristics that are “proven” with reference to stories like the above.  In fact, my inkling is that any ambiguity in descriptions of historical events will always be used to simplify them for inclusion in one country or another’s national story.  In Japanese, it is the lack of plurals for nouns, allowing “a Japanese apologized to comfort women” to become “the Japanese apologized to comfort women” with no change in wording.  I assume other languages have similar ambiguities that can ease the transition from events that happened to national triumphs or tribal enmities.  Grammatical ambiguity as in the simple past may be but one of many forms of catalyst that make historical events into parts of a story about us.