Dangling advice

From Kimes with Muschla, Grammar Sucks (recently discussed here), p. 175, a sentence I came across in leafing aimlessly through the book:

[(1)] After taking a look at these forms [irregular comparatives and superlatives for adjectives and adverbs] for just a few moments, some potential problems become obvious.

The material I have boldfaced is a classic “dangling modifier”: a sentence adverbial (in this case, with subordinator after and a present participial verb, looking) that lacks a subject but doesn’t pick up the referent for this subject from the subject of the main clause (some potential problems, in this case). Instead, this referent — the writer and reader taken together (as in inclusive we), or possibly readers considered generically (as in generic you) — is “in the air” in the context.

Grammar Sucks does take up subjectless sentence adverbials on pp. 200-4, in two sections: one labeled as on “dangling modifiers” proper, where no NP in the main clause picks out the referent for the missing subject (as in (1)), and one labeled as on “misplaced modifiers”, where there is such an NP in the main clause, but it isn’t the nearest NP to the adverbial, as in this as a example from Keith Devlin in a talk at an AAAS meeting on 2/17/01:

(2) As a mathematician, people often ask me…

It’s exquisitely difficult to talk about these matters by taking off from accounts in the advice literature, because these accounts are confused on so many points that it takes quite a long time to straighten things out. I have in fact already begun to wrench the Grammar Sucks account into something clearer and more accurate (by talking about NPs rather than “words” or “nouns”, by treating the modifiers in question as sentence adverbials rather than modifiers of nouns, by re-casting the description as a matter of referent-finding, and so on).

Now it’s time to go all the way, by replacing the terminology of “dangling” and “misplaced” modifiers by less judgmental terminology that moreover unites the two phenomena (while setting aside some types of irrelevant examples) and by abandoning the analysis in terms of nearest NPs in favor of an empirically more adequate analysis that refers to the subject of the main clause.

Back in 2008, in a posting “Why are some summatives labeled “vague”?” (here), I considered yet another type of sentence adverbial, exemplified by

(3) The streets [in New Haven CT] are safer and crime has dropped because immigrants are now putting their savings in banks instead of carrying them in their pockets, reducing robberies. (“Courage in Elm City”, NYT editorial 5/22/08, p. A26)

The boldfaced adverbial is subjectless, and the referent of the missing subject is the entire event or proposition described in the because-clause (immigrants put(ting) their savings in banks instead of carrying them in their pockets); the subjectless adverbial is summative, like summative non-restrictive relatives in which:

(4) Some managers focus only on short-term profit, which can lower the quality of the product or service. (Cazort, Under the Grammar Hammer (1997), p. 23 — an example given to illustrate violation of his Rule 15, about pronoun reference)

and summative demonstrative pronouns (this/that) that pick up referents in the immediately preceding context:

(5) Karate is a form of martial arts in which people who have had years and years of training can, using only their hands and feet, make some of the worst movies in the history of the world. This is interesing. (Rozakis, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style, 2nd ed. (2003), p. 94 — offered as an example of “unclear pronoun reference”)

I went on to expand on subjectless adverbials and relate them to other referent-finding cases:

The larger topic: subjectless predicational adjuncts (to clauses) that require a discourse referent for the missing subject — SPARs (Subjectless Predicational Adjuncts requiring a Referent) for short. The default is for for the subject of the clause the SPAR is adjoined to supply the discourse referent for the missing subject; call this the Subject Rule. Here’s a canonical example:

(6) Chicago’s Second City struck at the subject of nuclear diplomacy and cold war politics more consistently and deeply, deploying the type of irony that suggested a lunatic mentality shared by American political and military elites. (Kercher, Revel With a Cause, p. 324)

The SPAR is boldfaced. It’s a present-participial VP (that is, a whole predicate) without a subject. The SPAR serves as an adjunct to (“modifier of”, in traditional terminology) the preceding clause (the SPAR is a “sentence adverbial”). The subject of the preceding clause, italicized here, supplies the required discourse referent: Chicago’s Second City deployed the type of irony … That is, (6) is interpreted according to the Subject Rule.

Non-canonical SPARs present a problem in referent finding, very much analogous to the problems in referent finding that overt anaphoric elements, like personal pronouns, give rise to. Factors like discourse organization, topicality of referents in the discourse, real-world plausibility, background knowledge, etc. all play roles. The two domains are so similar, in fact, that it’s not unreasonable to think of the omitted subject in a SPAR as a type of pronoun — a covert pronoun, or “zero pronoun”. [Subjectless] summatives (which are non-canonical SPARs) then fall in with the other two types, which have overt pronouns (the relative pronoun which in [one type], demonstrative pronouns this and that in [the other]).

(There are SPARs of many different types, and the non-canonical ones range from the innocuous — only someone committed to the Subject Rule as God’s word could object to them — to the ludicrous, the ones that find themselves in compendia of dangling modifiers for people to laugh at. We’ve discussed examples from across this spectrum here on Language Log.)

(For a list of postings on danglers in Language Log and my blog, see here.)

In fact, the Grammar Sucks SPAR in (1) strikes me as stylistically flat-flooted, but not objectionable on the grounds of its violating the Subject Rule. And Devlin’s as a example in (2), like many as a examples that violate the Subject Rule, also sounds fine to me, as does the summative non-default SPAR in (3).

A word on the Subject Rule versus the Nearest Rule that’s found throughout so much of the advice literature. When the SPAR is sentence-initial, the two proposals make essentially the same predictions (though there can be serious puzzles in figuring out what counts as the nearest NP). But when the SPAR is sentence-final, the two proposals usually make different predictions, and the evidence is in favor of the Subject Rule: sentence-final SPARs strongly prefer to pick up the missing referent from the subject of the main clause, no matter what other NPs intervene. That’s the case in (6) and in:

(7) From 2004 to 2006, the members of the quartet were enrolled in the Professional String Quartet Training Program at the New England Conservatory of Music, earning master’s degrees in chamber music. (description of Jupiter String Quartet, Stanford Lively Arts Magazine April 2007, p. 17)

The preference is so strong that even when writers intend a final SPAR to pick up its referent from an immediately preceding NP, the result can be absurd, as in this example quoted in a comment on Language Log, here:

(8) Last Sunday’s Observer reported on the young man missing from home in the US for four years: “Yesterday Shawn and his family appeared at their home-town school in Missouri to talk to reporters. Shawn walked on to the stage, festooned in well-wishing posters and blue and yellow balloons.” (reported by Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, 1/20/07, in the “Sic!” section)

It’s hard not to read this as having Shawn festooned in posters and balloons.



7 Responses to “Dangling advice”

  1. Two danglers « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] examples of non-canonical SPARs (commonly called “dangling modifiers”), both of which point to the importance of […]

  2. Annals of danglerology « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] people wouldn’t have noticed this, but since I’m a scholar of SPARs (here and here), I caught the subjectless predicational adverbial requiring a referent for the […]

  3. Subject finding « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Another tribute to the power of the Subject Rule, especially notable for sentence-final adjuncts; see the discussion in “Dangling advice”, here. […]

  4. The Danglerology Project « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 5/21/08: Why are some summatives labeled “vague”? (link) On AZBlog, 3/2/11: Dangling advice (link) On AZBlog, 3/5/11 […]

  5. A double-barreled summative « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] AZBlog, 3/2/11: Dangling advice (link) […]

  6. The apostrophe and a non-dangler | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Where did Shove go wrong? Presumably Shove assumes the Nearest Rule for supplying the referent for the missing subject — the referent is provided by the nearest N (stroll, in this case) — but this is a hypothesis rather than a fact, and the Subject Rule is a much better hypothesis than the Nearest Rule. For clause-final SPARs (like the one above), in fact, the Subject Rule is especially strong, as I noted in a 2011 posting: […]

  7. Ambiguity for leeches | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the subject of the modified clause (rather than the closest nominal. A couple of nice examples in my 3/2/11 posting “Dangling advice”. My favorite […]

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