Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Non-distributive instrumental coordination

From this evening’s Detroit News coverage of Rick Snyder’s tax proposal, which was passed by the Michigan legislature today:

The tax reform is part of Snyder’s plan to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit. He’s doing so by cutting department budgets, eliminating business and personal tax credits, adding a new tax on pensions and cutting business taxes.

Four gerundial clauses—beginning with cutting, eliminating, adding, and (again) cutting—form a coordinated complement to the preposition by. This large by-phrase serves as an instrumental adverbial, indicating the means by which the budget deficit is to be closed. In coordinated instrumentals like this, the instrumental interpretation is typically distributed over all the conjuncts. Each coordinated gerundial clause in the excerpt above should thus name a different contribution to the closing of the deficit; and indeed, the first three all name different means of reducing government expenditures or increasing government revenues. The clear outlier here is the fourth gerundial clause, cutting business taxes: politics aside, it is a brute fact of mathematics that cutting taxes cannot be a proximate contributor to deficit reduction.

What we have in the excerpt above is thus a complex coordinated instrumental by-phrase whose instrumental semantics is not distributed over all the conjuncts. Rather, the instrumental semantics can only be understood to apply to the entire phrase; the sentence will end up true if and only if the deficit reducers in the first three conjuncts collectively outweigh the deficit aggravator in the fourth. To paraphrase: ‘Snyder is doing the following four things, which are collectively meant to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit.’

In practice, there is a strong semantic garden-path effect here. The instinct to interpret the instrumental meaning distributively over all conjuncts is deeply ingrained; we retreat to the non-distributive interpretation only after stumbling over the final conjunct. Less charitably, we might admonish the News for engaging in rhetorical sleight-of-hand, inviting its readers to infer that cutting business taxes has a near-term budgetary effect akin to that of, e.g., instituting a tax on pensions. The grammatical parallelism further serves to mask a yawning affective gap between the first three conjuncts’ impact on the immediately affected parties and the fourth conjunct’s impact on businesses; the disparity between the two instances of cutting serves this same purpose. Long coordinated phrases can be hard to keep track of, and correspondingly easy to slip things into.