A dangler in Belfast?

In an anecdote about James McCosh in his years at Queen’s College Belfast (posted in “McCosh on NomPred” here), this sentence:

(1) Late one night, while proctoring one of the dormitories, loud noises of student revelry began to emanate from one if the third-foor rooms.

As Mike Pope noted to me, this has a classic dangling modifier — a subjectless predicational adjunct (while proctoring one of the dormitories) requiring a referent for the missing subject, but not finding this in the default place, the subject of the main clause (loud noises of student revelry); surely loud noises were not proctoring a dormitory.

But the Subject Rule for finding the missing subject is just a default, and as in many other cases I’ve posted about on this blog, another principle leads us easily to the intended referent — so easily in fact that most readers will not have noticed that (1) has what is technically a dangling modifier in it.

This principle tells us to look for the referent in the most topical entity at this point in the discourse. So: look at the discourse as it unfolds before (1) comes along:

(2) one of the favorite campus legends [at Queen’s University in Belfast] concerns Princeton’s own President McCosh. It seems that Dr. McCosh, when a young newly-created professor at Queen’s several years before he came to the U.S., had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and a stricter grammarian.

The passage is all about McCosh; McCosh is the discourse topic, and so he’s by far the most likely referent of the missing subject. It was McCosh who was proctoring the dormitory.

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