Restriction and the marsupial

27 Aug

Somewhat in the manner of Oscar Wilde, I recently spent the afternoon debating whether or not to put a comma in this:


You can see where I mean, can’t you? After “dingo”. Yes: it’s our old friend the restrictive clause. If you put a comma in, it clearly means George Stubbs never saw the dingo or the kangaroo before having to paint them. If you leave it out, as here, it probably means he saw the kangaroo but not the dingo, unless you’re generously inclined to attach the restrictive clause to both animals. But I don’t think that’s the obvious reading. The indefinite article before “dingo” isolates it from “kangaroo” with its definite article and encourages you to succumb to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls the Lure of Low Attachment – that is, instinctively reading a phrase as modifying only the thing closest to it, and not things further back (or “higher up”) in the sentence.

The “which” doesn’t help: “which” doesn’t automatically signal the start of a non-restrictive clause, whatever the state of Texas might tell you. Only a comma can do that. So what’s the right answer? It’s hard to say, dammit:


Ah, he did see the kangaroo. So we don’t need the comma. Well, hang on. Does a dead skin count? I suppose it helped for colouration and texture. Elsewhere in the piece, it is suggested that Stubbs might have even inflated the skin into a kind of marsupial balloon to paint from (not an image that’s easily erased from the mind). On the other hand, you might well argue, a skin on its own doesn’t remotely qualify as “the flesh”; it’s just another piece of patchy, secondhand evidence that Stubbs had to wrestle with.

Even with this background information, it’s still a coin-toss; or rather, it’s the writer’s call. Do they think that a kangaroo hide counts as “in the flesh”? Did they leave the comma out deliberately, in the full knowledge that they were creating a restriction? Maybe. But writers put, or don’t put, commas in strange places without always realising the consequences. And since the piece praises Stubbs’s artistic achievement against the odds, half the world away from the Outback, isn’t the whole point that he had almost nothing to work with in Britain?  One or the other interpretation must have been meant, and it’s hard to fudge: adding or leaving out the comma forces you to make a binary choice between meanings.

And that’s one reason, at least, why I’m still so sympathetic to Fowler’s efforts to get writers to maintain “which” after a non-restrictive comma, and “that” when there isn’t one, to reinforce their intentions.  So much hangs on that little tick on the page: it’s such a weak hinge for such a big semantic pivot. Its appearances and disappearances can be as random as the peregrinations of the apostrofly. One virgule-shaped fleck on the newsprint in the wrong place, or one greasy spot that doesn’t take the ink from the roller, and everything changes. Makes me nervous.


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