Today’s dangler

Heard in a tv commercial for life insurance:

There’s no medical exam required. And by answering a few simple questions, your coverage can start immediately.

The boldfaced material has a classic “dangling modifier”, a non-default SPAR: by answering a few questions is a subjectless predicational adjunct to the main clause, and its interpretation requires that a referent be found for the missing subject, but that referent is not the default one, the referent of the subject (your coverage) in the main clause; instead it’s the referent of the possessive determiner (your) within this subject. Despite this, the sentence is easily understood (as something like ‘if/when you answer a few simple questions, your coverage will start immediately’); it may count as a “dangler”, but it’s harmless.

In my collection of many hundreds of danglers, there are only a few like this one (with a coding that begins SUB(by)-PRP), but there is a set of somewhat similar cases that I’ve looked at under the heading of “by-Topicalization”.

Two clearly parallel cases from my collection (without sources):

Z3.342. Write cheques in whole dollar amounts. By doing this, the figures on your payment advice slip will balance within your cheque.

Z3.421. A sign in the cafe of Ikea’s store in Sydney, Australia, reads: “By taking your tray to a tray station, we can continue to keep our prices low”.

Two more that might belong here:

Z4.31. By suspending the payments, the money could be used to pay other bills. [possibly ‘if you suspend the payments, …’]

Z4.32. By changing their color from black to white, it can seem as if more police cars are on the streets. [possibly ‘if you change their color from black to white, …’]

So such examples are attested, but they’re not particularly common.

Now on by-Topicalization, building on a discussion on this blog on 6/14/08, with things somewhat simplified here. Here we have a construction found with some frequency in student writing (and, as a result, complained about by writing instructors), for example:

(1) by talking about Drew’s autism, it will spur more research and assistance for families affected by it.

Certainly non-standard, and also a non-default SPAR: the referent of the missing subject of talking is not the referent of the subject of the main clause, which is a “dummy”, or perhaps “vague”, it. The standard remedy is to convert the talk VP into the subject of the main clause:

(2) talking about Drew’s autism will spur more research and assistance for families affected by it. [standard; no SPAR]

But, as I said in my 2008 posting:

(2) doesn’t, I think, get the effect that people who use the construction in (1) are trying to get with it — which is to mark some discourse referent as topical in the discourse (in the by-adjunct) and then say something about it (in the main clause). That is, this “by-Topicalization” construction explicitly separates “discourse topicality” and “sentence topic”, while these two statuses are fused in the subject in (2).

Another try:

(3) by talking about Drew’s autism, she will spur more research and assistance for families affected by it. [standard; default SPAR]


This is not semantically equivalent to (1) and (2); (3) attributes the hoped-for spurring of research and assistance to Roach herself, while the others attribute it to Roach’s activities. Granted, this is a subtle difference, and possibly not one that’s important to the writer or speaker.

There are other possibilities. For instance, you can make the sentence explicitly biclausal, with the topicality marking and the main assertion divided between an initial subordinate clause and the main clause, respectively:

(4) when/if she talks about Drew’s autism, it/that will spur more research and assistance for families affected by it. [standard; no SPAR; “vague” it/that]

That brings us back to the life insurance commercial, where the example has a conditional semantics much like (4), At that level, (1) is similar to the tv commercial example and the similar ones above, but those examples lack the special discourse function of by-Topicalization: they have similar forms, but serve different functions.

2 Responses to “Today’s dangler”

  1. mikepope Says:

    Maybe this is barking up the wrong tree, but what’s the incidence of by-topicalization that involves danglers as a percentage overall of by-topicalization constructs? IOW, by-top danglers might not be common, but perhaps the by-top construct in itself isn’t that common — ?

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