Subjectless predicative adjuncts

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.





4 Responses to “Subjectless predicative adjuncts”

  1. the ridger Says:

    If he’s very lucky, and he brings a lot of literature to support his answer, they will agree to accept both A and E (either A or E, I suppose). But probably not.

  2. Gary Says:

    I assume that the student was intended to know that “viewed from Earth” is the normal way to express this, whatever the grammaticality of “viewing it from Earth” may be. In other words, not a grammar question but a “how does one say it” question.

  3. Runner Says:

    I hope the PSAT recognizes their error. This is clearly an example of doing the right thing….

  4. Tom Saylor Says:

    I’m not persuaded that the dangler in the PSAT question is of the same ilk as the “acceptable” danglers you cite. You seem to be arguing that because most of the participles in this small sampling of acceptable danglers express a kind of “viewpoint,” any dangler with a participle expressing a viewpoint is acceptable, and because the PSAT dangler has a participle expressing a viewpoint, it too is acceptable. I don’t think this general form of reasoning is valid, but, putting that objection aside, I’d like to point out that the PSAT dangler is semantically and structurally rather different from those in your sampling.

    The participles in your sampling express a viewpoint only in a metaphorical sense. They denote acts of cognition (judging, analyzing, reasoning), not acts of viewing in the perceptual, ocular sense. It does seem to be true (though this is only my vague impression) that these “cognitive” sorts of participles are dangled with some frequency in edited prose. But in the PSAT dangler the participle (‘Viewing’) is used in its literal, perceptual sense, denoting a physical act of observation. I don’t think (though, again, this only my vague impression) that “perceptual” participles of this sort are dangled nearly so often in carefully edited writing as the “cognitive” variety are. At any rate, the PSAT dangler can’t reasonably be deemed acceptable merely because its participle denotes an act of viewing. CGEL (p. 611) cites the classic “Walking down the street, his hat fell off” as an example of an unacceptable use of a dangling participle. Would that sentence really be any more acceptable if it said “Looking down the street, his hat fell off” or “Watching the clouds roll by, his hat fell off” or “Viewing Mars through a telescope, his hat fell off”?

    In its structure, the dangler in the PSAT sentence differs importantly from those in your sampling. The object of its participle is a pronoun (‘it’) whose presumptive referent is the subject of the main clause (‘the planet Mars’). None of the “acceptable” adjuncts in your sampling exhibit this sort of cataphora, which when combined with a violation of the Subject Rule makes for a particularly awkward sentence, the sort of sentence that careful writers generally avoid. So while you certainly will find in edited prose such sentences as “Bearing in mind the competitive environment, this is a creditable result” [CGEL, p. 611] or “Considering the alternatives, a job in Minnesota looks fairly attractive,” I don’t think you’ll often find sentences like “Bearing it in mind, the competitive environment seems to have affected these results” or “Considering them in this light, the alternatives are not very attractive.”

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