Thursday, November 27, 2008

maybe things really are going to the dogs

Recently a beggar asked me for money while urinating.

A few days later I heard someone answer his cellphone in his little stall in the Cavendish restroom and he flushed while still on the call.


Arnold Zwicky said...

mutt: "Recently a beggar asked me for money while urinating."

Who was urinating: you, the beggar, or both of you?

mutt said...


One day I'll learn. Hopefully.

Arnold Zwicky said...

mutt: ":) One day I'll learn. Hopefully."

But could I please have an answer to my question? If you don't want to reply on your blog, you can mail to me directly ( is my preferred e-mail address).

If you go to my website ( or explore the Language Log site (, you'll see that I'm a linguist; one of my professional interests is in the interpretation of modifiers like "while urinating".

I'm not querying your grammar, only trying to find out how you intended to use this expression.

Tracy said...

I think it's obvious that it was the beggar who was urinating. If mutt was urinating in public, he must think this was normal behaviour and wouldn't bother to blog about it.

Tracy said...

And of course the beggar urinating ties in with the theme of the blog: things are going to the dogs which is clear from people's unsavoury toiletry behaviour.

Interpret language by the context!

Arnold Zwicky said...

tracy: "I think it's obvious that it was the beggar who was urinating. If mutt was urinating in public,..."

what you're saying is the this is the interpretation you get. it's also the one i get, and the one that would be predicted by one of two principles that have been suggested for such cases. but the other principle would predict mutt as the urinator, and, in any case, people sometimes produce such modifiers according to the second principle rather than the first.

i asked mutt about his intended interpretation precisely because of the possibility that the interpretation that i (and you) put on the sentence was not the one he intended.

as for urinating in public, mutt didn't say that, and in fact the two colleagues i discussed the example with at breakfast guessed that the context was urination in a men's room; in that case, the context would allow either interpretation.

Tracy said...

Ok, I guess you think about these things much more than I do. I expect that any South African reading this would get the right interpretation since we know the circumstances in which we're likely to encounter a beggar. But I can see why someone outside of SA might not.

stuart said...

Hi Arnold

I'm a fan of your blog. I'm sorry I didn't realise that your question was serious.

The beggar was the one doing the urinating, and this was on a public street.

Sorry I took so long to reply, I've been moving out of my flat.

Arnold Zwicky said...

stuart/mutt: "The beggar was the one doing the urinating, and this was on a public street."

Here's the linguistic background, in a nutshell: most subjectless predicational adjuncts, like "while urinating" need to have a referent supplied for the missing subject. There are two proposals for how to find this referent: the Nearest Rule and the Subject Rule.

The Nearest Rule says you find the referent from the nominal expression nearest to the adjunct. The Subject Rule says you find the referent from the subject of the clause the adjunct is attached to.

When the adjunct precedes this clause, the two rules mostly make the same prediction, but when the adjunct follows this clause, the two rules usually make different predictions. As in the case of the beggar sentence, which has the adjunct after the main clause: in "a beggar asked me for money while urinating", the nominal nearest the adjunct is "money", and the next nearest is "me", while the subject (which is the farthest from the adjunct) is "a beggar". The nearest nominal that denotes something capable of urinating is "me", referring to the speaker/writer.

But in fact in this case it's the subject that denotes the urinator. Indeed, the Subject Rule predicts the referent for the missing subject in the case of most final adjuncts.

So, stuart/mutt, your usage was the default one. I was just checking to make sure this was so. (Sometimes people follow the Nearest Rule with final adjuncts, often with humorous results.)