6

She ran towards the display, her nose pressed against the glass.

My friend and I don't understand the same thing when reading this sentence, and neither of us can explain why.

To me, it doesn't make sense. The meaning I get is: She ran towards the display with her nose pressed against the glass.

My friend says it's one action after the other, basically: She ran towards the display, and pressed her nose against the glass.

  • Does anybody know which one of us is right? And why?
  • What does this sentence mean, grammatically?

I have some wild theories of my own, with independent and dependent clauses, and different subjects, and... yeah, wild theories...

  • 7
    I think your friend's suggestion is what was intended (assuming "she" wasn't running through a revolving door or some such). It is poorly worded, however. – Hot Licks Nov 15 '15 at 3:19
  • 2
    "Grammar" doesn't mean anything. "Semantics" carries meaning. The literal analysis of the semantics implies that "she" ran while her nose was pressed against some glass somewhere. – Hot Licks Nov 15 '15 at 3:25
  • 2
    I think somebody just substituted a comma for the word "and" in this case. – Misneac Nov 15 '15 at 3:58
  • 5
    Yes, this sentence is either physically implausible or ungrammatical. The most likely explanation is that the writer should have used a semicolon to separate the two actions. "She ran towards the display; her nose pressed against the glass." This mistake is so common in English that it has a name: comma splice. – Quuxplusone Nov 15 '15 at 9:26
  • 2
    The reason both interpretations are possible is that pressed is both the past tense (active, or in this case unaccusative) and the passive participle. The participle is used in absolute, verbless constructions (“with her nose being pressed against the glass”); the past tense is used in clauses (“her nose pressed [itself] up against the glass”). The comma splice is the main issue here: we expect separate clauses to be separated by conjunctions or semicolons, otherwise we interpret them as non-separate clauses if we can. In speech, it would be completely unambiguous. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '15 at 10:45
20

There is one independent clause

She ran towards the display, ...

followed by a nominative absolute

her nose pressed against the glass.

So called because it describes the action of the subject (nominative) while being syntactically isolated from it (absolute).

The reason that it sounds wrong is because we have no reference for "the glass" other than the display itself. And how can she have her nosed pressed against glass that she hasn't reached yet?

15

The reason you and your friend are parsing this differently is that, as a written sentence, its semantics and its grammar go against each other. There are three main factors to why this is so:

1. Syntax/semantics of press

Crucial to why this is so is the syntactic-semantic properties of the verb press, which can be:

  • intransitive (“She pressed harder and the stubborn button finally gave way”)
  • transitive (“She pressed her nose against the glass”)
  • unaccusative(-ish) (“Her nose pressed against the glass”)

Unaccusative verbs are intransitive syntactically, but differ from normal intransitives in that the subject is not the agent, and the agent is normally left unspoken; they are thus semantically closer to the transitive constructions than the intransitive constructions. Thus, “She pressed her nose against the glass” and “Her nose pressed against the glass” mean more or less the same thing, despite the sentences having different syntactic structures.

2. Morphological coalescence

English does not distinguish the simple past tense from the passive participle in regular verbs—both are pressed in this case. That is known as morphological coalescence, when two functionally distinct forms are identical in appearance.

The simple past, being a tense, is used as the main verb in clauses; you can substitute it for the simple present press(es), the present perfect has/have pressed, etc.

The passive participle, being a participle, is not used as the main verb in a clause, but it is used in various types of absolute constructions, i.e., phrases with no main verbs embedded in sentences, known as participial phrases. One common type of participial phrase has the basic structure [possessive determiner] [possessee] [participle] [various other complements] and denotes a state or action that applies to the subject of the main clause while the action in the main clause takes place; for example:

He walked down the corridor, his head held high.
She ran up the stairs, her voice ringing out loud and clear.
He slouched into the room, his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets.

3. Punctuation

Distinct main clauses are generally separated by conjunctions, semicolons, or full stops (or exclamation marks, etc.) in English. Commas are used to bound off various types of subordinate clauses and often also absolute constructions, but should not, according to traditional rules of punctuation, be used to separate main clauses; doing so is what’s known as a comma splice.

 

Putting it together

The logical semantic properties of the passage in question here make it likely that the intended course of events is that ‘she’ (whoever she is) first ran towards the display and then, when she got there, pressed her nose to the glass. The punctuation (a simple comma with no conjunction), however, leads us to want to interpret the whole thing as one sentence, rather than two.

In many cases, this does not really create that much of a problem, because in many cases it’s simply not possible to interpret something as a single sentence. For example:

She ran towards the display, I pressed my nose against the glass

This is a comma splice, but it’s still quite unambiguous—there are two separate subjects and two separate main verbs, both with distinct further complements (“towards the display” in the first, “my nose” and “against the glass” in the second), so there must be two main clauses. There is no possible way to interpret either as some type of subordinate element of the other.

This is not the case with your sentence, though: “She ran towards the display” is a main clause, no doubt about it; but “her nose pressed against the glass” is syntactically ambiguous.

Because the simple past and the passive participle are identical and because press is one of those verbs that can be either transitive or unaccusative(-ish), two different interpretations are, on the face of it, equally valid:

  • Active unaccusative clause: her nose pressed against the window = her nose was pressing up against the window
  • Passive participial phrase: her nose pressed against the window = her nose being pressed up against the window [by her]

The former of these is a main clause; the latter a subordinate phrase. The former does not indicate any particular temporal relationship between itself and the preceding main clause (it can be simultaneous, or it can be sequential—depends on the context); the latter specifically encodes taking place simultaneously with the preceding main clause.

Now you see the problem with the latter half of the statement:

The comma and lack of conjunction leads us to read it as a subordinate phrase, which reading entails simultaneity; but the logic of the statement as a whole leans heavily towards sequentiality, which requires a main clause reading.

Conflict ensues, and you end up having to choose one or the other as a suboptimal compromise: you either let syntax and punctuation win (well-formed sentence, but doesn’t make sense), or you let semantics win (makes sense, but ill-formed sentence). You and your friend just chose different compromises.

  • Yes; the comma is important to mark off the absolute clause. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 15 '15 at 12:44
  • So what you are saying is that, in the active unaccusative clause, the conjunction "and" that was supposed to replace the comma was omitted? (well written by the way!) – sooeithdk Nov 15 '15 at 19:11
  • @sooeithdk Well… sort of. For two main clauses to be right next to each other, there must be some kind of separating marker: full stop, semicolon, conjunction, etc. A comma is usually not considered ‘enough’. It's normal to have a comma before an and that separates main clauses, though, so it wouldn't really be replacing it as such. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '15 at 19:24
  • Yeah. What I meant by replacement was not that it's grammatical, but that the comma just substituted for the conjunction (in an ungrammatical way, which makes the clause described above ungrammatical, even though it is understandable). – sooeithdk Nov 15 '15 at 19:27
  • 1
    That's quite an impressive edit :) – Mari-Lou A Nov 16 '15 at 22:15
9

With regards to the decontextualized sentence, misinterpretation of its semantics and, thus, mistaken judgments about its grammaticality are likely. However, in some contexts,

  1. Neither you nor your friend are right.
  2. The sentence is expressive and meaningful.
  3. The sentence is perfectly grammatical.

Let's construct one of the many possible contexts where the three points above are true:

The store employees agreed to play a game. Each would take a full martini glass, press it to their nose, and run towards the seasonal display from a set starting point. The quickest runner who also did not spill the martini would win the game! Gretchen was one of the players. She ran towards the display, her nose pressed against the glass.

In this context, your friend is not right: the actions are simultaneous, not sequential. You are not right: the sentence makes sense and is grammatical.

When I read the sentence in your question, it 'sounds' neither ungrammatical nor nonsensical. Simply, it appears to be out of context.

Your question fails to supply a textual context, which alone could resolve any doubt about both grammaticality and meaning, as my fabrication of a suitable context shows.

The question also fails to supply information about the modality of the sentence. That is, you don't say whether the sentence was spoken or written. This failure to specify a modality bears directly on the judgements of native speakers about grammaticality and sense:

... are the well-formed sentences of written texts elaborated versions of the sparse and economical basic spoken structures, elaborated because they have less contextual support in writing and therefore necessarily must increase the amount of redundancy? ... one's stance toward [these questions] can have major implications for what is considered correct or acceptable in a pedagogical grammar. If we accept the integrity of nonstandard units in a spoken grammar, then in general terms a spoken grammar is likely to be more liberal in what it accepts as "adequately formed," which itself may be preferable to the term "well formed", with its connotations of native-speaker intuition. Native speakers, when asked to judge the grammaticality of decontextualized sentences, are more than likely to attempt a minimal contextualization (something akin to a written sentence), and their judgements may have no greater validity than that (i.e., that the sentence is grammatical or ungrammatical by written standards).

(From "Ten Criteria for a Spoken Grammar", by Michael McCarthy and Ronald Carter, in New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, edited by Eli Hinkel, Sandra Fotos, Routledge, Jul 1, 2001.)

The point is that when presented with English sentences out of context, many, if not most, native speakers construct and assume a context that bears on their recognition of both grammaticality and sense. What is, or is not, thought to be "adequately formed" relies on both textual and modal contexts.

2

I think deadrat's answer citing the nominative absolute is right on, but am adding this so the OP has a clear-cut example to bring to the friend who was mentioned in the post.

She read the love letter, her eyes closed.

This obviously makes no sense (assuming the letter was not written in braille). It means she read the love letter, and her eyes were closed as she read it. Nominative absolutes render concurrent not sequential states or events.

Eve turned around, an apple in her mouth.

If we wanted to make the actions sequential, the second phrase cannot be an absolute describing the subject of the first clause.

She read the love letter and closed her eyes [or] ... and her eyes closed.

  • Good parallel example with another verb that can be used to form unaccusatives. You made it transitive in your second example, though, where retaining the unaccusative would make it clearer: “She read the love letter, and her eyes closed”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '15 at 12:05
  • I paint these days with a broad brush :) – TRomano Nov 15 '15 at 12:12
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    "This obviously makes no sense" -- well, it makes sense and would appear to be false ;-) – Steve Jessop Nov 15 '15 at 12:54
2

The grammar is ambiguous.

It could be a dependent clause using a passive participle "pressed". Compare, "She stood still, her arms folded" or "She smiled, one eyebrow raised".

If this is the intended parse then I think in your example it would be clearer to reverse the clauses: "Her nose pressed against the glass, she ran towards the display", or even better to rephrase: "She ran towards the display with her nose pressed against the glass". One of the reasons that famous authors often confound prescriptive style rules, is that frequently clarity is not their main objective. So just because something is unclear doesn't mean nobody will do it if they think they have good reason.

More importantly, and as you've observed, it is difficult to draw meaning from this way of parsing the sentence. What glass was her nosed pressed against? Surely not the glass of the display she is running towards. So we can tentatively reject this parse and look for another.

It could be a comma splice. Compare, "I came, I saw, I conquered" (attributed to Julius Caesar)

It would usually be better style to use a semi-colon or a full stop to separate independent clauses, especially in your case where it causes confusion with another plausible parse of the sentence (albeit one with absurd results). There is no such confusion in Caesar's utterance, but still the quotation is alternatively rendered with semi-colons.

Another example with semi-colons: "Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack'd from side to side; 'The curse is come upon me,' cried The Lady of Shalott." (Alfred, Lord Tennyson). Here, "cracked" is a simple past tense: the mirror broke at the time reported. The author makes clear that he is describing three separate actions, although it's not entirely clear in context whether the first two are consecutive or concurrent. He certainly is not saying that a mirror involved in the previous or subsequent actions was a cracked mirror, because the semi-colons prevent the middle part from being that kind of dependent clause.

Because semi-colons are widely used as the primary tool for this job, it's relatively difficult to read a comma as doing it. Nevertheless, it happens. It's "real" English grammar.

In practice, where the grammar is ambiguous one must in good faith select the parse which appears to have been intended, and accept that this is "what the sentence means". Having done so, one then has the option of complaining that the sentence were better not written in the first place.

For your example, I would go so far as to say that the first (presumably unintended) parse is the more instinctive one for a native speaker (well, reader) of English, and that the second (presumably intended) one is often deprecated by critics of style. So you are fully entitled to be confused by it, and your friend is fully entitled to say it nevertheless does (or at least can) mean what you both think it was probably intended to mean.

0

There are two possibilities: The sentence is actually 100% correct, or the author was careless. The "100% correct" scenario is less likely, since it means that all the time while she was running, she was holding some glass and pressed her nose against it.

Most likely the intended sentence was "She ran towards the display, then (when she reached it) she pressed her nose against the glass (of the display) and stayed in that position." She seems to be an excitable person fascinated by the items behind the glass of the display, so that she has to bring her face as close as possible; that's why her nose is pressed against the glass.

  • 1
    There is a 3rd possibility: the author deliberately broke the rules of standard grammar to intensify urgency. – Level River St Nov 16 '15 at 10:10
0

I'd call it a punctuation malchoice, rather calling for

She ran towards the display; her nose pressed against the glass.

This preserves the connection between both actions while making clear that we are talking about grammatically independent sentences in direct juxtaposition. Which is the perfect use case for a semicolon. A semicolon is never actually prescribed definitely by the rules of language: it is always a deliberate choice.

So basically I support your friend's interpretation of this fragment while considering the text itself worthy of improvement. Use of a semicolon is the least invasive way to do that as an editorial suggestion. Of course, the author him- or herself might well consider more drastic rewrites.

  • I support the OP's friends interpretation, but I would not consider the semicolon an improvement. I believe the author broke the standard rules of grammar for a reason, see my answer. – Level River St Nov 17 '15 at 0:58
0

The correct standard grammar here is:

She ran towards the display. Her nose pressed against the glass.

A semicolon is an acceptable alternative.

There exists a hierarchy of punctuation in English:

a full stop comes at the end of a sentence;

a semicolon can be used between two related sentences, or to separate items in a list, as here;

a comma is used to separate different clauses in a sentence (or in a list item).

The comma (when spoken) therefore implies a shorter pause than either a full stop or a semicolon.

The author has (in my opinion deliberately) broken the rules of grammar and inserted a comma where s/he should have inserted a full stop. The reason for this is to give a shorter pause in order to intensify the sense of urgency that the character feels. We are made to feel breathless by the use of the comma, and that is what the author wishes to achieve.

A similar literary device for intensifying is to give a list of items, all separated by the word "and" with no punctuation, as is found in the soundtrack of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, for example:

It was red and yellow and green and brown
And scarlet and black and ochre and peach
And ruby and olive and violet and fawn
And lilac and gold and chocolate and mauve
And cream and crimson and silver and rose
And azure and lemon and russet and grey
And purple and white and pink and orange
And red and yellow and green and brown and
Scarlet and black and ochre and peach
And ruby and olive and violet and fawn
And lilac and gold and chocolate and mauve
And cream and crimson and silver and rose
And azure and lemon and russet and grey
And purple and white and pink and orange
And blue! 

Again, we are made to feel breathless by what is normally considered "poor grammar", but that is the intention. There exist examples in books as well as songs, but I can't think of one right now.

  • "There exist examples in books" -- for example Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style" approves the sentences "Man proposes, God disposes." and "The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up." – Steve Jessop Nov 17 '15 at 1:55
  • @SteveJessop I meant fiction books, where the comma is used to give a shorter pause between sentences (also I was referring to the multiple "and".) But if Strunk and White approves of the comma, hallelujah! Why are so many answers here saying the author is wrong? The full stop, semicolon and comma are really just different length pauses for breath, which should be used appropriately. Nobody should be dictating. Those that dictate are generally the same ones that say "a photo of my friend and I." PS I missed your Julius Caesar example, which is another perfectly good one. – Level River St Nov 17 '15 at 2:10
  • It doesn't generally approve of it, they just run into their classic problem that every prescription they come up with admits exceptions. What it actually says is crockford.com/wrrrld/style2.html#5 Which is why I always say that one should take the title of the book literally: it provides rules of style, not rules of English grammar. Breaking their rules means you're unstylish (at least in their view and that of people who share their taste), it doesn't necessarily mean you're ungrammatical. – Steve Jessop Nov 17 '15 at 3:18

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