The context of danglers

What follows is an abstract for an academic conference (explanation to come) on “dangling modifiers” in context. This is only an abstract, with a 200-word limit and no space for a bibliography (though I’ll add two items below).

The context of danglers

Though “dangling modifiers are common, old, and well-established in English literature” (MWDEU), they have been disparaged since the late 19th century – but handbook examples are often invented and usually cited without context. The absence of context is not an accident: it follows from the assumption that the Subject Rule (SR, saying that SPARs, Subjectless Predicative Adjuncts that Require a referent for the missing subject, must have this subject supplied by the subject of the clause the adjunct modifies) is a rule of grammar rather than a rule of thumb guiding sentence processing. If it’s a rule of grammar, then sentences are well-formed or not as they stand; no amount of context could fix that.

I first trace the route to the position that SR is an absolute: a proscription is formulated (to which a prescription is the remedy), then the prescription is promoted from advice about effective language to a rule of grammar, regulating what is acceptable as standard.

Then I note classes of cases where, even without context, X-SPARs (SPARs not obeying SR) are acceptable:

(as-a SPAR) As a linguist, this work impressed me greatly

(dummy subject) After writing that book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.

These cases cast doubt on SR as a condition of grammar, suggesting instead that it’s a heuristic in sentence processing (so that problematic X-SPARs err by leading to difficulties in processing; they are inconsiderate, not ungrammatical).

Finally, I explore a variety of cases where linguistic context, background knowledge, and discourse organization can make X-SPARs unobjectionable. From Shetter (2000), for instance, the example:

Driving along, the house appeared.

With context:

We got in the car and started off. Driving along, the house appeared on the left after a few minutes.

the sentence is perfectly clear.


Shetter, William Z. 2000. Driving along, the house appeared: Participles that ‘dangle’. Link.

AZBlog, 7/24/11, Disregarding context. Link.

I’ll post on Shetter in a while. For now: the sad history of this abstract.

I submitted it in e-mail back in mid-August, and then waited six weeks to hear the judgment of the abstracts committee. I then went back to the Sent folder in my mailbox and discovered a typo in the address. The correct address began with “am”, but I had typed “avm” — in moving from the “a” to the “m”, my non-functional little finger must have hit the “v” — and somehow the message wasn’t bounced back to me.

So maybe next year.

2 Responses to “The context of danglers”

  1. mae Says:

    “Do you want to hear a funny sentence?” asked my little brother. “Turning the corner the bookmobile came into sight.”

    We, his big nasty sisters, said there was nothing wrong with the sentence. Finally we figured out that he was studying dangling modifiers, and the “funny” sentence was: “Turning the corner, the library came into sight.”

    Is that about mental processing of context? If not, I apologize. A few million years later, we still sometimes joke about it.

  2. as a SPAR « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I wrote in a posting about the role of context in interpreting X-SPARs, there are cases where, even without context, X-SPARs […]

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