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We discussed socialism as allowed by law.

A learner on ELL asked whether it is “socialism or the discussion itself” which is allowed by law. I responded that the phrase could only be understood as involving “legally allowed discussion” if “set off with a comma (or expressed with corresponding comma-intonation in speech) or moved to an earlier position”;

without a comma, as allowed by law is understood to be a restrictive modifier on socialism: what we discussed might be expressed as “legally allowed socialism”.

I think that absent some contrary context I was substantially correct. On consideration, however, another angle on this occurs to me: that the meaning of the as clause does in a sense ‘overflow’ onto the verb: it is not merely socialism which is restricted to a specific aspect of that topic but the discussion of it as well.

I was in part prompted to this reflection by another question, raised first on ELL and subsequently in somewhat different form on Linguistics: Do predicative adjuncts modify nouns or verbs. The very cogent answer provided may not be directly relevant but it is at least suggestive.

How do we parse as clauses like these?

We discussed socialism as allowed by law.
As written, the sentence implies that it is socialism which is allowed by law.

ADDED:

That is, supposing that it is given that we are discussing socialism only insofar as socialism is allowed by law and not as it is in other contexts, does not that also imply that discuss as well as socialism is modified by the clause as allowed by law? And if it is given that it a sentence has certain implications only insofar as the sentence is treated as a written text and not under other categories, does not that also imply that implies as well as sentence is modified by as written?

And does it make any difference if we write

We discussed socialism as it is allowed by law.
As it is written, the sentence implies that it is socialism which is allowed by law.

  • I know you're asking about the grammar, but the example sentence kind of grates on me. Socialism is an idea; when put into practice, it is a either a system of government or an unofficial cooperation among people; socialism itself can't really be illegal without a very awkwardly framed, nigh unenforceable law. (Consider the legal fiction of a corporation is basically a way for a group of people to cooperatively own and operate an economic engine.) The meaning of the sentence is clear (to me) that it is the discussion of socialism which has been outlawed. Sorry for splitting hairs; +1. – Patrick M Jul 11 '14 at 15:19
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    @PatrickM I agree with you about the oddity of the socialism example, but that's the phrase I was handed to work with. The question I am asking, however, works just as well with "As written, the sentence implies ...". If it is a given that as written restrictively modifies sentence, does it not at the same time restrictively modify discuss, at least semantically? And if so, how is that secondary modification represented in a syntactic analysis? – StoneyB Jul 11 '14 at 15:36
2
+50

The parsing of the as clause depends on intended usage; the as clause can modify the nearest substantive if used adjectivally, but can also modify the nearest verb (or other part of speech) if used adverbially.

Firstly, the function of the as clause must be evaluated. In this circumstance (and in similar usages), the multifaceted word as is applied as a preposition, in the sense of "in the capacity, character, condition, or role of". Therefore, its usage must be considered under the general properties of prepositional phrases.

A prepositional phrase can function either as an adverb or adjective, so an as clause can function identically. However, because the as clause acts as a modifier, the rules of modifier placement apply. Therefore, the position of the as clause may indicate which word it modifies, although this doesn't work in all contexts.

Here is an example of an as clause functioning adverbially (modifying the word discussed):

Because the KGB was monitoring them, they discussed the Party only as allowed by law.

Here is an example of an as clause functioning adjectivally (modifying the word party):

Wondering if the noise pollution would attract unwanted attention, they discussed their wild fraternity party as allowed by law.

If an adverbial as clause is intended, moving the clause closer to the verb (i.e., improving modifier placement) may eliminate ambiguity, as follows:

Exercising our right to free speech, we discussed, as allowed by law, whether the Supreme Court ruling was valid.

Clearly, as you illustrated with your "kitten" example, the parsing depends on context.

Addendum:

I have difficulty regarding the phrase as allowed by law as applying to both the noun socialism and the verb discussed. Being used adjunctively, I would assume it could only apply to one of the words.

You perhaps could construct the as clause as a disjunct, as follows:

As allowed by law, we discussed socialism.

In this construction, it would apply to the sentence as a whole. However, it would not apply specifically to both the verb discussed and the noun socialism. Additionally, in order to use the clause disjunctively, the as clause must be placed at the beginning or end of the sentence and be followed (or preceded) by a comma.

In sentences where the placement of an adjunctive as clause causes ambiguity (this can be considered a form of a misplaced modifier), the as clause can be interpreted as either modifying the verb or noun. When this ambiguity is intentionally employed to give a sentence a double meaning, it could even be considered a form of zeugma, a rhetorical device in which "a word modifies or governs two or more words so that it applies to each in a different sense".

Here is a general example of zeugma:

He fished for compliments and salmon.

Here is a subtle instance of zeugma with an as clause:

The prophecy was fulfilled as it was written.

The as clause appears as though it refers to two things simultaneously, because one cannot determine which word it actually modifies. This gives the sentence a double meaning. If we interpret the as clause as modifying prophecy, then the sentence means that the prophecy was fulfilled exactly as foretold. However, if we interpret it as modifying fulfilled, then the sentence means that the prophecy was being fulfilled while it was being written. By intentionally placing the modifier at an ambiguous position, I could employ zeugma. (The example was not as illustrative as I would prefer, but it was the only example that I could devise right now.)

  • See my addition to the question, and my comment on decvalts' answer. – StoneyB Jul 6 '14 at 20:32
  • @StoneyB I expanded upon my answer to reflect the information from your above comment. – Theodore Broda Jul 7 '14 at 0:43
  • Your final example describes the problem very nicely - and now the question becomes How you represent that double sense syntactically? Put crudely, How do you diagram this sentence? – StoneyB Jul 7 '14 at 0:52
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    An aside, but do you think this is one of the limitations of 'traditional grammar' as you eluded to in the ELL answer? (So it can't be diagrammed fully on a single sentence diagram?) – decvalts Jul 9 '14 at 12:55
  • @decvalts Yes, I think this is a limitation with traditional grammar. It is often difficult to determine which word a prepositional phrase modifies, and sometimes where the prepositional phrase ends and the rest of the sentence begins. – Theodore Broda Jul 10 '14 at 13:43
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The only question is what the speaker actually said.
Remember, writing is only a way of recording actual human speech.

If the speaker indicated by intonation or other device a separation of as required by law
from the rest of the sentence, as here represented by the comma, then it refers to discussion
as allowed by law.

If, on the other hand, the speaker did not indicate this by intonation, then it refers to socialism
as allowed by law.

As, per se, has nothing to do with it;
this is simply the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses.

  • My question, however, goes only to the case where this is a restrictive clause modifying socialism: in this case, is not the restriction on socialism equally a restriction on the discussion? -that is, we restricted our discussion to this aspect of socialism. – StoneyB Jul 8 '14 at 3:55
  • It's not the same structure, but you may well be meaning the same thing by it. I wouldn't know. Either one seems strange to me. – John Lawler Jul 8 '14 at 3:59
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I personally find the sentence to be ambiguous, especially due to the lack of delimiters such as comma or something.

I parse the sentence "We discussed socialism as allowed by law." and come up with these interpretations:

  1. The scope of socialism that we discussed is within the limits of law.

    In this case, what is being limited is not the act of discussing something, nor is the topic of socialism itself. What is being limited is how deep the topic of socialism can go.

    I'm not into socialism, so I'll give an example like in discussing a secret fried chicken recipe: the limit is discussing the general aspects such as "you fry it in a hot oil", but deeper stuff such as the exact ingredients (is it olive oil? Sesame oil?) and especially the exact quantities being used (maybe 200ml per kg of chicken breast?) is forbidden

  2. The topic of socialism itself is allowed by law

    In this case, the limit is on what topics can be discussed. Maybe in that context the law allows you to discuss about socialism, but forbids you from discussing about, say, capitalism or transhumanism. How deep you can go in the socialism topic is not limited

  3. The discussion itself is allowed by law

    In this case, the limit is on what actions you can do. Maybe the law allows you to discuss something but forbids you from practicing yoga or playing hockey

  4. The manner in which we conduct the discussion is allowed by law

    In this case, the limit is on how you do things. Maybe the law forbids you from yelling or pointing fingers during a discussion, and you didn't do any of those

I find that the best way of knowing how you should parse "as" is by looking at the context. Putting a comma and making the sentence look like "We discussed socialism, as allowed by law." still allows for interpretation 2 & 3 without context, because:

  • Perhaps the government agents thought you're discussing a forbidden topic, not socialism
  • Perhaps the government agents thought you're conducting a forbidden action, not discussing
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What does a restrictive ‘as’ clause modify?

Actually, the question and the subject rely only on the presence of comma. It is not specific to 'as' clause.

blablablabla1 blabla2 blabla3 something1

something1 describes blabla3

blibliblibli1 blibli2 blibli3, something1

something1 describes the whole blibliblibli1 blibli2 blibli3

In spoken language, you will always silence after comma. Bad speech, bad transcription or bad writer will make comma disappear from written text.

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