Ask AZBlog. From a Stanford student who’s worked with me, a query on behalf of her mother and her brother, who was confronted by this item on a PSAT exam:
31. Viewing it (A) from Earth, the planet Mars seems to be rushing (B) eastward through the constellations, as if (C) in a futile (D) effort to escape from the Sun. No error (E)
In this sort of question, the student’s task is to identify one of the four underlined expressions (labeled A through D) as an error in grammar, or to answer E if there’s no error in the sentence. There are not many such questions, so that getting just one answer “wrong” affects the student’s score significantly.
In this case, my friend’s brother answered E (as I would have), and that was marked wrong. What’s going on here?
(Over the years, Mark Liberman and I have posted a number of times about the deficiencies of questions like 31 above as gauges of grammatical competence. Here I’ll just deplore them massively. But students have no say in the matter; they’re stuck with them and have to cope as best they can.)
I’m pretty sure that the devisers of this question intended A to be the “right” answer, in the belief that the PRP VP viewing it in A is a “dangling modifier”.
To recap material I’ve posted on dozens of times: there’s a huge class of subjectless predicational modifiers in English (functioning as sentence-modifying adverbs), of many different forms; PRP VPs are especially frequent. Some of these require that a referent for the missing subject be supplied — that makes them SPARs (subjectless predicational adjuncts requiring a referent for the subject), and the default is for this referent to be supplied by the subject of the sentence the SPAR modifies. Non-canonical SPARs, not obeying this Subject Rule, are customarily labeled “dangling modifiers”, and I’ve posted a lot about the subtypes of non-canonical SPARs, some of which are innocuous, except to people who who insist that the Subject Rule is the Word of the God of Grammar.
The complication in all this is that there’s a large class of subjectless predicational modifiers that don’t in fact require a referent for the missing subject, call them SPAs. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses some of them on p. 611, with examples like
turning now to sales; bearing in mind the competitive environment; having said that
to which many more could be added:
considering the alternatives; considering/remembering/recalling/etc. that S; taking these facts into account; taking into account the situation of the workers, leaving/putting aside the style of his writing, assuming you’ve read all the literature, knowing this department, …
Call these viewpoint SPAs: the missing subjects are 1sg or inclusive 1pl or generic (the understood subject is “roughly recoverable from context as the speaker or the speaker and addressees together” (CGEL)), and the SPAs convey their viewpoint, so are especially useful in managing the thread of discourse.
Insisting that viewpoint SPAs are all dangling modifiers — and are therefore “errors” — flies in the face of the facts of current usage, not to mention the evident practice of accomplished writers and speakers for centuries. The SPA in question 31 above looks straightforwardly to me like a viewpoint SPA; it’s literally about point of view, in fact. So it would seem preposterous to insist that referent of the missing subject of viewing in 31 has to be the planet Mars, which would make viewing it an “error”.
Apparently the people who devise the PSAT grammar questions are firmly in the grip of the Subject Rule (though misguided, that’s standard dogma for many who write on usage) and, more important, are ignorant of the distinction between SPARs and viewpoint SPAs, which I view as simply inexcusable.
Not that I think the folks at the College Board will admit their error in this case. My friend’s brother is probably screwed.