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The great American novelist Norman Mailer apparently began his rather brilliant novel 'HARLOT's GHOST' with a 'major grammatical error.' The sentence is as follows:

"On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago."

So where is the error?

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    Memories may drive one to the brink, but recollections do not drive. – Cascabel Apr 24 '17 at 21:50
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    So he should have written "on a late-winter evening in 1983, while I was driving through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago" -- I suspected that was the error -- thanks a lot for a world record rapid response! – English Student Apr 24 '17 at 21:51
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    A major grammatical error? G K Pullum doesn't consider a dangling modifier which does not lead to ambiguity to be a major grammatical error. "But back to our main theme. Is it truly so terrible to have dangled a participle as [here]? ... no: in the particular case at hand it does not matter much." In the example here, one could just consider this a not-ultra-formal deleted form of "On a late-winter evening in 1983, while I was driving through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections ..." – Edwin Ashworth Apr 24 '17 at 22:14
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    Per user Cascabel's comment, the error was corrected in the second edition, which reads "... while driving my car through fog..." – UserEpsilon Apr 24 '17 at 22:23
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    It seems that "On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires..." was 'corrected' as "on a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving my car through the fog along the Maine coast, recollections..." -- this does seem in retrospect an amazing correction because the error appears to remain: were recollections 'driving my car' through the fog? In fact this is the version I read; do you think it actually 'corrects' the error? (I KNOW I have been advised not to turn comments into discussion; should I move it to chat?) – English Student Apr 24 '17 at 22:38
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If, as a prescriptivist, you disregard the elision of the words I was as the source of the technical error, then the apparent error reduces to the conjunction of two independent clauses with an ambiguous subordinate clause.

The subordinate clause is (in simplified form) while driving. The first independent clause has no subject other than recollections, which cannot be directly reconciled with the pronoun subject I of the second independent clause, so it is ambiguous as to who or what is driving (Recollections may drift, but as Cascabel commented, they do not drive.)

I'll illustrate by simplifying the sentence first without the subordinate clause:

Recollections drifted into the mist, and I thought of the Indians.

On the other hand, with the subordinate clause, it becomes something like this, where the ambiguity can be seen:

While driving, recollections drifted into the mist, and I thought of the Indians.

Including the elided words we have a subordinate clause that may refer to one or both independent clauses, but it does eliminate the ambiguity entirely:

While I was driving, recollections drifted into the mist, and I thought of the Indians.

It's not uncommon to omit the subject of a subordinate clause when it can be inferred from the independent clause. In this case, having two independent clauses with irreconcilable subjects might offend someone driven by prescriptive grammar. But literary license overrules this, especially in popular works, where sins are easily overlooked.

  • Thank you for the lucid explanation. Despite literary license, Norman Mailer was reportedly "pounced upon" by critics for "writing a sloppy sentence" which, being a first sentence, became rather notorious after all the criticism. The error is, however, nothing but literary trivia because Mailer is a great author and Harlot's Ghost is a (literally massive and) tremendous work. – English Student Apr 24 '17 at 23:25
  • @EnglishStudent I concur, it's a great novel. And the first sentence grabs you. – Sabuncu May 20 '17 at 11:48
  • @Sabuncu very true! The whole opening sentence is evocative, pensive and mystic. Those critics who focused on the grammar error missed a great sentence, but it paradoxically made the sentence very famous! Grammar gurus say that such a dangling construction is no great error as long as it does not create ambiguity. Independent of all that debate, 'Harlot's Ghost' (for which I had to wait nearly 5 years to read) is a brilliant work -- not necessarily for the espionage aspect, but mainly for the lovingly convincing evocation of a specific, very controversial period in America's political history. – English Student May 20 '17 at 16:56
  • @EnglishStudent Well put! I loved the part where he just throws his entire suit in the washing machine. Why the five year wait? – Sabuncu May 20 '17 at 17:02
  • @Sabuncu I got a copy of the great Mailer's 'Ancient Evenings' as early as 1998 at the age of 19 and read it a year later, but could not find any other book of his in my hometown in South India in those days before mail order bookstores and ebooks. It was in 2008 that I came to know of the intriguing 'brick of a book' Harlot's Ghost, but couldn't find an ebook version to purchase online. Finally my uncle bought a print copy for me in Los Angeles and brought it when he visited India in 2010, but I'm emotional about books and didn't read it till 2013. Works like these are too good to finish! – English Student May 20 '17 at 17:23
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You can simplify that crappy, crappy sentence into:

While driving, recollections began to drift.

Well, recollections don't have a Maine driver's license. Presumably, he meant something like

While I was driving, recollections began to drift.

It's still a terrible sentence, but at least it's not wholly erroneous.

  • I don't agree with you at all, this is a great sentence. – Sabuncu May 20 '17 at 11:46
  • Sorry to disturb you, but I upvoted this answer by mistake. I had no intention of voting up or down on it in the first place. This error is to be attributed to the touchscreen of smartphones, which apparently cannot distinguish between an intentional touch action and unintentionally hitting the screen while holding the phone! Your lucid answer is, however, appreciated. – English Student May 20 '17 at 17:53

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