Dangling as promised?

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Yesterday, Norm Geras spotted a lovely dangling modifier for the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct's collection. The source was an article by Tim Adams ("The town that made Margaret", The Guardian, 4/5/2009), which featured this second sentence:

Now 83, and long gone from power, Britons remain fiercely divided over the reign of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher is the one who's "now 83" and "long gone from power", but the handiest peg to hang these modifiers on is the subject, "Britons". Geoff Pullum has argued ("Stunningly inept modifier manners", 3/10/2005) that such sentences don't "violate the syntactic correctness conditions for English", they're just "bad grammatical manners, the syntactic analog of … eating the butter from the butter dish".

A few days ago, a reader suggested politely that I might have committed such a breach of manners in the first sentence of my post "Why 'that would be me'? (part 2)", 4/3/2009:

As promised in part 1, I'm going to survey CGEL's taxonomy of uses of would, and do a tiny corpus study to get an idea of their relative frequency.

I try not to eat out of the syntactic butter dish, but I do spill some syntactic soup down the front of my shirt from time to time, because as a blogger, I follow the writing advice of Raul Julia's character Franco in the movie Gumball Rally:

"And now, my friend, the first rule of Italian driving. [Franco rips off his rear-view mirror and throws it out of the car.] What's behind me is not important."

But in this case, I consider myself innocent of any offense against grammatical decorum.

Dangling modifiers dangle because they're meant to modify a noun that's either absent or inaccessible. Thus in in this classic example from 2003, "rich and creamy" is meant for "pie" but ends up on, embarrassingly, on the guests:

Rich and creamy, your guests will never guess that this pie is light.

But phrases of the form "as <past participle> …" are generally sentence modifiers, at least where the verb in question is one like promise, suggest, explain, argue, etc., which takes a sentential complement.  Consider these examples from published articles and books, and ask yourself in each case what is being modified:

Many attorneys in New York strive to contribute fifty hours of pro bono assistance each year, as suggested by the New York County Bar Association.

On April 15, Marc Hauser will discuss how our moral instinct evolved, as explained in his landmark book, “Moral Minds" …

As promised in the Quebec budget two weeks ago, the government is going ahead with $106 million in improvements to Quebec's northern airports …

As argued by appellee, the only possible status of a company acting under charters from two states is that it is an association incorporated in and by each of the states …

I think it by no means improbable that — as conjectured by Krause — the so-called "disk" … may bring from the ovary the materials out of which the chorion is formed …

In contrast, phrases of the form "as <noun phrase>" are typically nominal modifiers, and thus can "dangle" when their intended heads are absent or less accessible than another possible alternative. Here are some current examples from the web:

As an American, it was impossible not to feel proud of the team that wears “USA” on their uniforms.

As an American, it's embarrassing watching my President bow to another man and his wife hug a queen.

As an American, this stereotype was hardwired in my subconscious …

But a sentential modifier like "as promised" or "as suggested" need only be in appropriate contact with the sentence it modifies.

I suspect that my correspondent may have learned the false rule that an initial adjunct must always modify the subject of the following clause, a policy that would ban all sentence adverbs from initial position. Or perhaps he interpreted "as promised" on the model of  as <past-participle> phrases that are do modify nouns, e.g. "as written", "as originally designed", etc.


  1. Picky said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    We are certainly long gone from power, and sometimes we do seem collectively approx 83, but surely we are not still fiercely divided about Maggie's legacy – good heavens, we can see that all around us.

  2. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    Actually, I don't find the first two examples of "As an American" nearly as bad as the third, for some reason. The second in particular barely makes bat an eyelid.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Phrases beginning with "as" don't seem as potentially ambiguous as dangling participles. They seem to comment on the whole sentence to follow, instead of referring to a specific noun-phrase, normally the first one encountered.

    [(myl) As-phrases aren't always sentential adjuncts — see the "as an American" examples above, which seem to me to want to modify the subject. ]

  4. Karen said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    The first two have dummy "its" for subjects, and we all know they're dummies so we don't feel they should be modified. The third one, though, has a real subject (this stereotype), so we feel that it *could* be modified, as for example "Crude and ugly, this stereotype was hardwired…". That's what makes the difference.

  5. comwave said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    Thank you very much for the posting.

    I have been wondering which is a dangling modifier and which is not. Now, I can get a clear line.

    To be honest, I have learned and known the construction of "present/past participle phrases" this way;

    A sentence "When Ted was walking down the street, he met Jimmy." can be reduced into "Walking down the street, Ted met Jimmy."

    1. In the conversion, the basic condition is that both subjects in both clauses shall be the same. When the subjects are different, you must not omit the subject in matrix clause. (E.g. It being nice, we went outside to enjoy the spring.)

    2. You can reduce the matrix clause into a phrase because you can retrieve the subject from the main clause.

    After reading the post, I got the impression that the conditions 1 and 2 above look groundless and arbitrary even though they have been clear-cut to me in understanding the participle phrases so far.

  6. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 1:21 pm


    Not so:

    I, for one, *am* fiercely divided about Maggie's legacy …

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    In all fairness to Adams the offending sentence was written not by him but by the Guardian sub-editors, a particularly clueless bunch, who often don't even bother to read the articles they're supposed to be writing the taster for.

  8. Picky said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    Almost as clueless as the Independent subs who let through that rubbish about ethnic food the other day. What on earth has happened to subs? I know there is now a fashion for getting rid of them altogether – and on this showing, why not ???

    @David Eddyshaw:


  9. Stephen Jones said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    The Guardian had an equally clueless article on ethnic food.

  10. Jangari said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    I've never quite seen the logic of rules such as these. In fact I first learned the 'omitted subjects of adjunct are recovered only from the subject of the clause' convention when doing tertiary Italian (although it wasn't exactly said in so many words).

    Whatever happened to good old pragmatic recovery? Can't we intuit from context and general real-world expectations that the fronted adjunct in the following can refer to nothing else besides the first person?

    As an American, it's embarrassing watching my President bow to another man and his wife hug a queen.

    Owing to the pragmatic constraints of who can be an American and what can be embarrassing, I personally fail to possibly parse this in any other way¹.

    Is this the same false rule that prohibits sentence-initial 'hopefully', unless the speaker intends by "hopefully, he has arrived safely", for instance, that 'he arrived not only safely, but in a hopeful manner'?

    Utter nonsense.

    ¹See the classic example of a dangling adjunct there? I bet you parsed it completely fine.

  11. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    Konrad Kuiper — who, by the way, is a linguist as well as a poet — has a splendid dangler in one of the poems of his sequence Signs of Life (Wellington, Wai-te-ata Press, 1981):

    Placing the rubbish
    By the road,
    the old man's
    through torn trousers.

    But I would argue there's nothing wrong with this construction and that only a pedant would fail to understand that the gerund-participial clause modifies the genitive noun phrase.

  12. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    PS I typed it the poem with indents copied from the book, but they haven't come out.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    PPS And I misspelled the poet's name: he's Koenraad Kuiper.

  14. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    @ Jangari, I thought "owing to" had more to do with a preposition these days (cf. "due to") than with a potentially dangling participial.

  15. Cecily said,

    April 8, 2009 @ 7:05 am

    Not strictly a dangling modifier, but certainly dangling, is this RSS from BBC news (I added the ellipsis):

    "A woman in her 20s is diagnosed with the most serious form of skin cancer…. almost every day of the year, experts have warned."

    So a story about women in general, not just one unfortunate woman.

  16. ajay said,

    April 8, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    A woman in her 20s is diagnosed with the most serious form of skin cancer…. almost every day of the year,

    "Yep, sorry, still there. Same time tomorrow?"

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 8, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    I think that in this one:

    > On April 15, Marc Hauser will discuss how our moral instinct evolved, as explained in his landmark book, “Moral Minds" …

    the "as <past participle phrase>" actually is modifying a nominal, namely "how our moral instinct evolved", which I believe is an interrogative content clause functioning as a nominal. (Surely his book doesn't explain that on April 15 he'll be discussing it.)

  18. John Baker said,

    April 8, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    Mark, what is your response to Jangari? I don't mean with respect to sentences like the wonderfully miswritten example with Margaret Thatcher that begins your post. Sentences such as that clearly are miscast, and it is just not good enough that readers eventually can find their way to the meaning; there is no excuse for forcing them to make that side trip. But with examples like your first two "As an American" sentences, worrying about the dangling modifier seems less compelling.

  19. Sili said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    Given how Maggie was probably a driving force behind getting the Montreal Protocol passed, people really should be divided about her legacy.

    Sorry for the political commentary.

    It's likely because I'm primed by the first examples, but I have to struggle to misread the "as an American" examples. Impressive how much difference context makes.

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