On the dangler watch

A regular theme on this blog looks at “dangling modifiers” that on no reasonable grounds should some of them be treated as ungrammatical. Here are two cases, of different types.

To recap from numerous previous postings here and on Language Log: we need to re-frame the discussion to get away from the prejudicial and invidious terminology “dangling modifier” (and the assumptions that lie behind it). The topic is SPARs — Subjectless Predicative Adjuncts Requiring a referent for the missing subject — and the default principle for finding this referent, which expects that it’s provided by the subject  of the clause the adjunct modifies. But there’s a collection of cases in which the Subject Rule is disregardable; it’s a rule of thumb, not a rule of nature.

Case 1: Mrs. Muldoon. From Martyn Cornell on Facebook, a piece from the Derby Telegraph on January 6th, “Derbyshire pub’s 42% rent rise row taken to House of Commons” by Oliver Astley:

[1] Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and undergoing months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the pub grew in popularity under Mrs Muldoon.

 The Subject Rule would say that the pub was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that’s ridiculous (which is why Cornell posted the example).

However, [1} is pulled out of a larger discourse, which begins:

Hundreds of people are protesting on behalf of a Derbyshire publican who says a huge rent increase forced on her by a major pub company will destroy her livelihood.

The fight is being taken to the House of Commons after Claire Muldoon, who runs the Pattenmakers Arms, in Duffield, was told by Enterprise Inns that her rent was to soar by 42%.

The material, which goes on for some paragraphs, is all about Mrs. Muldoon. And that makes all the difference in the world. Mrs. Muldoon is the discourse topic, and this topicality makes her easily available as the referent of the missing subject in the SPAR in [1]. Discourse topicality is crucial.

Case 2: Peter Higgs. From the NewScientist 21/28 December 2013, p. 8, “I was a guest at the party of the universe” by Valerie Jamieson, on Nobel Prize ceremonies, in a section on the Higgs boson and Peter Higgs, beginning with some small talk with him:

Famously elusive, it’s a treat to speak to Higgs in person.

This one depends less on Higgs being the topic of (this part of) the discourse, though that contributes to its acceptability, but instead turns crucially on the subject of the main clause being the dummy (non-referential) pronoun it, which cannot possibly supply the referent for the missing subject in the main clause. So Higgs is the only possibility. No problem.

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