The Danglerology Project

I’m at the end of week 2 (of 10) of working with a Stanford summer intern, Megan O’Neil, on the Danglerology Project. There will be many more postings as we work our way through the material. Here’s the brief description:

A subjectless predicational adjunct, loosely adjoined to a clause, that requires a referent for the missing subject (a SPAR, for short) by default picks up this referent from the subject of the clause it modifies (the Subject Rule) – as “born in 1937 in Germany” does in “Born in 1937 in Germany, he was taken out of the country by his family the following year”. SPARs that don’t obey the Subject Rule – like this same expression in “Born in 1937 in Germany, his family fled from the country the following year” – are labeled “dangling modifiers” in textbooks and advice manuals, which proscribe them, though non-default SPARs are very frequent and often occasion no problem for readers and listeners. There are many different types of SPARs, involving a variety of syntactic structures. It’s clear that the acceptability of non-default SPARs depends on the structural type; on background information; and, especially, on discourse organization: the major hypothesis is that the topicality of particular referents in context is a potent factor governing acceptability.

Some background reading:

AZ on LLog, 7/7/04: Don’t dangle your participles in public (link)

My 2005 Stanford Humanities Center presentation on dangling modifiers (link)

On SPARs:

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

Note: these summer internships — there are many — are sponsored by the Stanford office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (to whom kudos, huzzahs, and other celebratory utterances; this is, I think, the seventh intern I’ve worked with, and they’ve been a great boon).

They’re paid internships (as they should be). I’m paid nothing, but get the advantage of working with smart and enthusiastic young people. The deal is that they do useful work for me (collecting and coding examples, analyzing them, looking for patterns in them), and I engage them in research, maybe leading to an honors thesis on something that comes out of the summer project, maybe encouraging them to go on to grad school.

(This year the postings of the available projects went out on the net, with the result that some time after applications were closed, projects funded, and interns chosen, people began writing me to apply for my project — from other universities. I explained that the deadlines were long past, and that anyway the internships were strictly for Stanford undergraduates; but of course these people were disappointed (one offered to make chocolate-chip cookies for me if I’d pull strings to get past the Stanford-only clause; this was sweet, but silly, as we both recognized). I was impressed at the enthusiasm such an arcane project inspired in these students. There are a lot of great young people out there.

One Response to “The Danglerology Project”

  1. After VPprp « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a “dangling participle”, a species of non-canonical SPAR (brief discussion here). After reading that book is an adjunct to the main clause (it’s a sentence modifier), and […]

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