From basket to casket

Sully the Dog

Sully, President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, waits with his handler at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Dec. 03, 2018. (photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Katelyn Strange)

Verbal ambiguities are frequently the cause of laughter, sometimes at inappropriate moments. During the state funeral of the 41st President of the United States, for instance, many onlookers were touched by the loyalty of George Bush’s dog, who stayed in close proximity to his master to the very end. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to write the following words on the dog’s fidelity:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket holding what remained of him.’

The unintentional humour of this sentence reminded me of this other example from my schooldays:

‘Launching the ship with impressive ceremony, the Admiral’s daughter smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the slipway.’

In both cases, there is what might be called ‘subject-object’ confusion. In the latter example, ‘she’ could refer either to the Admiral’s daughter or to the ship (ships are frequently referred to as feminine objects). In the former, it’s not clear whether the object (the casket) is doing the ‘holding’ or the subject (Sully the dog).

To get an unambiguous sentence, we must therefore separate the subject and object.

In the case of the story of the late president, that is easily done by changing the participle form of the verb (‘holding’) into a relative clause starting with ‘that’ or ‘which’. This allows the object to have its own verb that is clearly not connected to Sully the dog:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket that held what remained of him.’

So we can change the wording to avoid embarrassment, but the question is whether we really want to. After all, it’s sometimes important to be able to laugh in the face of grief.

Paying one’s dues

umbrella

A frequent question concerns the correct use of ‘owing to’ and ‘due to’. Both phrases originate in the world of finance and moneylending; and of course the word ‘due’ still has the sense of ‘money owed’ in expressions such as ‘rent due’, ‘due by 14 March’ or ‘to pay your dues’.

A later, more general meaning of ‘due’ is of something well-deserved (‘with all due respect’, ‘credit where it’s due’). More loosely, it comes to refer to anything that can be simply attributed to something or someone. ‘Death was due to heart failure’, for example. As a result, ‘due to’ and ‘owing to’ have become practically synonymous with ‘because of’, and are frequently used in its place:

  1. Due to the rain, the president did not attend the ceremony’
  2. Owing to the rain, the president did not attend the ceremony.’

Now, most editors agree that both of the above sentences are grammatically correct. But some purists insist that ‘due’ should not be used prepositionally, as in sentence 1, but should always be attached to a verb:

3. ‘The president’s absence was due to the rain’
4. ‘It was due to the rain that the president did not attend the ceremony.’

Equally, although ‘owing to’ works fine as an introductory prepositional phrase in sentence 2,  it would look pretty strange in sentence 3: (‘The president’s absence was owing to the rain’).

So the sensible solution seems to be to use ‘Owing to’ for introductory prepositional phrases. Elsewhere in the sentence, use ‘owing to’ or ‘is/was due to’, depending on construction.