Does it really matter if it dangles?

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In his short but cutting review of Simon Heffer's Strictly English, Steven Poole remarks that the book "condemns hanging participles yet perpetrates a monster (on p165, too tedious to quote here)." What was this tedious monster, I feel sure you Language Log readers are asking? The sentence in question is the second one in this quotation (from the beginning of a section; I underline the relevant phrase):

Partridge has a long entry in Usage and Abusage on the word got – he could as easily have made the entry about the word get – but, if anything, this unusually strict grammarian lets the promiscuous and often thoughtless use of this term off lightly.3 Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.


3. Usage and Abusage, p136.

Is that really a mistake?

The "hanging participle" (it is more common to say "dangling participle" or "dangling modifier", as I will do here) is the gerund-participial clause beginning with detracting, i.e. this clause:

detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times

It has no subject, and as one casts about for some noun phrase that might be understood as its subject, one fails to come up with anything. But does that matter?

Nothing in the preceding sentence suggests a candidate logical subject; and the main clause subject of the sentence (which follows it) is the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts, which surely cannot be the right choice. That is, he cannot surely mean this:

??Without the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.

What he means is instead surely something like this:

Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, I would nonetheless like to point out that the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.

The understood subject of detracting is first person singular: it is Heffer who might detract from Fowler's point about Anglo-Saxon words such as get being better than French or Latin words like obtain or requisition, and he wants to forestall any such detraction but nonetheless wishes to say that he thinks Partridge didn't come down hard enough on the over-use of the versatile verb get.

Heffer has certainly written a classic dangling modifier, so we know he cannot follow his own rules. And if the dangling modifier is a really bad writing fault, he is guilty of bad writing. Certainly he himself insists on its badness. He warns against this sin 64 pages earlier, with a standard invented example taken from a grammar book of about a hundred years ago (almost all his sources are close to a century old; here he is citing C. T. Onions): After fighting the flames for several hours the ship was abandoned. This is wrong, Heffer says, because it was not the ship that fought the flames.

What he seems to be demanding is that if a subjectless gerund-participial clause is used as preposed adjunct, or as here, is the complement of a preposition (after) in a preposition phrase used as a preposed adjunct, the semantically understood subject of the gerund-participle must be whatever is the referent of the subject of the matrix clause (here, the ship).

He gives several other examples that he collected himself. And incidentally, in doing so he shows again that he is an utter incompetent at grammar, because he gives this as an example:

The day before he died, David Cameron and his wife played with their son.

This is an embarrassing slip. What he's objecting to is that the pronoun he could refer either to their son (the right choice), or to David Cameron (the wrong choice); there is risk of misunderstanding. But this is just an ambiguity of pronoun reference, and it has nothing to do with dangling participles at all. There are no participles at all in this sentence. Heffer cannot tell his participle from a hole in the ground.

But back to our main theme. Is it truly so terrible to have dangled a participle as he does in the example about detracting from Fowler's point?

The irony is that the answer is no: in the particular case at hand it does not matter much. There are many semi-conventionalized participial adjuncts (or adjuncts containing subjectless participial clauses as complements) that seem just fine for any native speaker to interpret, and are happily used by even expert and careful writers:

Speaking of sales, what do the third quarter figures look like?
Moving right along, this slide shows the third quarter figures.
Seeing as you're here, there must be some ulterior motive for the visit.
Without detracting from Fowler's point, aren't some Anglo-Saxon verbs overused?
There is nothing particularly wrong with these. They don't make the reader do a double-take, or half-seduce the reader for a moment into some crazy interpretation. They work almost as if the participles were prepositions, and indeed, you can very roughly paraphrase all of them with preposition phrases: As regards sales, what do the third quarter figures look like?
In order to move right along, let's look at the third quarter figures.
In view of the fact that you're here, there must be some ulterior motive for the visit.
Without prejudice to Fowler's point, what exactly is a relative clause?

Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that dangling participles are always OK, or that Heffer is wrong about everything, or that Heffer writes badly. It is all a little bit more subtle than that.

  • Some dangling participles are definitely cases of bad writing. After fighting the flames for several hours the ship was abandoned is obscure and puzzling about who fought the flames; and some examples are ludicrously misunderstandable, like the classic invented example Trembling with fear, the clock suddenly struck midnight (see this post and many other Language Log posts on the same topic).

  • It would be perfectly reasonable for a writing guide to recommend that such sentences should be avoided. The problem with Heffer is that he doesn't know how to do that — he can't characterize or identify what he's trying to warn against. He botches his job, and states an over-general rule that he cannot even obey himself (despite all the help that Random House copy editors could provide).

  • Although Heffer does violate his own rule, the sentence he writes is a good illustration of why that rule is too broadly and strictly stated. He wrote a sentence that falls within the small range of semi-conventionlized cases that don't sound all that bad to experienced users of English. So under his own framing of the rule, he is guilty; but through his incompetence he has actually been unfair to himself.

This usage stuff is not straightforward and easy. If ever someone tells you that the rules of English grammar are simple and logical and you should just learn them and obey them, walk away, because you're getting advice from a fool.

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19 Comments »

  1. Picky said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    Interesting. The sentence is clearly unambiguous, and not to be condemned, but it made me uneasy. "Not all that bad" you say. Yep. Of course it's difficult for a writer to know what may cause discomfort to any (undefined) section of his readership. I suppose one of the justifications for following prescriptivist advice may be to avoid the unintentional causing of discomfort. Or perhaps a writer should cross his fingers and trust to what he hopes will be good taste. I would hazard that Heffer has not shown good taste in this passage.

  2. Hazel Singer said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    As a person who reads widely, but is not a rigid grammarian, I have found myself increasingly having to reread sentences, not because of their beauty, deep insights, or other esoteric values, but rather, to merely understand what the author is saying. I sit there and ponder "is it me or is it them". If writers and their editors would only take the time to read out loud, perhaps some of these issues could be resolved. I am coming round to the idea that perhaps a more rigourous approach to learning more than just the fundamentals of grammar is needed in order to be a more playful and plastic user of language and a become a better communicator.

  3. CIngram said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times

    Fowler never said anything remotely as crass as Heffer suggests. In fact, I suspect he has never consulted Fowler, but just assumes he knows what he would say. Here in The King's English Fowler says that all other things being equal (and he also says they almost never are) it might in some cases just be preferable to choose a Saxon word rather than a Romance word of similar meaning.

    In Modern English Usage he says of Saxonism 'the wisdom of this nationalism in… English is very questionable; we may well doubt whether it benefits the language… …conscious, deliberate Saxonism is folly, …the choice or rejection of particular words should depend not on their descent but on considerations of expressiveness, intelligibility, brevity, euphony, or ease of handling…

    In other words, he says that the origin of a word matters little or nothing when compared to the exigencies of style, register, context and meaning. And once again Heffer shows his ignorance.

  4. naddy said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    As a side note, get is Old Norse rather than Anglo-Saxon.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    @CIngram: However, style and register are often related to the origin of the word with English on the bottom. The hierarchy of sophistication is often Latin > French > English like pulchritude > beauty > prettiness.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    It seems to me that the problem in this post is GKP's insistence on the merged category of gerund-participle, which has always troubled me. To me, the detracting in the sentence in question, being the complement of the preposition without, can be only a gerund and not a participle, so that there's nothing that would dangle. The whole phrase is a preposition phrase just like the ones in the italicized examples. Had Heffer written not detracting, it would have been another matter.

  7. VinnyD said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    These initial phrases ("Without detracting . . . ", "Speaking of sales . . ."), which are to be taken to modify the whole sentence rather than any part of it, seem comparable to initial adverbs along the lines of "Hopefully" and "Naturally". Of course, Heffer probably also objects to "Hopefully we'll get there before dark" unless you mean that you'll get there in a hopeful spirit, and to "Naturally, she began to dye her hair when it turned gray."

  8. Graeme said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

    There's a simple reason he doesn't introduce the 'I' as an explicit subject. He wants the claim (ie that there is a strong presumption to favour anglo words over latinate ones despite 'get' being overused) to appear objective, as if it were some kind of necessary internal dynamic of the language rather than a subjective preference.

  9. blahedo said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

    I don't have any trouble with the sentence as written, but I wonder what Poole would think if Heffer had punctuated it as follows:

    Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times: the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word), it is downright confusing.

    I like this change (swapping colon and comma) for other reasons: the dominant break in the sentence is between the "without…" phrase and the whole rest of the sentence. Certainly if you follow the "rhetorical" or "prosodic" model of punctuation, you want the longer pause between "times" and "the" rather than between "slovenly" and "it".

    But regarding the OP it also highlights another option for what to hang the initial modifier clause on: possibly "without … times" is a modifier on the entire rest of the sentence, "the use … confusing".

  10. Ian Preston said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    If "the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times" then why say "detracting" rather than "taking away"?

  11. GeorgeW said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    @Ian Preston: Also rather than Latinate 'prefer,' why not 'choose' or 'pick' ( good ole English words).

  12. Dominik Lukes said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    I am aware that this might get me shot, but shouldn't the sentence " Heffer cannot tell his participle from a hole in the ground." have read "Heffer cannot tell his participle from a hole in the gerund."?

    Apologies.

  13. Darrell said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    (despite all the help that Random House copy editors could provide)

    Being myself a former copy editor, I'd like to imagine that they simply saw how bad his book was and quietly stopped helping.

  14. MJ said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    @Darrell

    Being a former Random House editor, I think it's more likely that production was told to take a light hand.

  15. logodaedalist said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    Who says "…is to be preferred to…"? I thought it was "preferred over".

  16. The Ridger said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    "After fighting the flames for several hours the ship was abandoned is obscure and puzzling about who fought the flames", perhaps, but I'll bet not in the original context (assuming it wasn't invented for the argument). Not to say that it's a good sentence, but many good sentences are puzzling when ripped from their surroundings.

  17. The Ridger said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    Also, @logodaedalist: MWDEU says "to" is "usually" used, with "over" "occasionally used".

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 24, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    @logodaedalist: Prefer over is one of my pet peeves, but considering that you consider it standard and prefer to strange, and I see prefer over everywhere, I may be hurling myself under the steamroller of language change.

  19. jan said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    Isn't "ship" sometimes used to mean everybody on the ship? The crew?
    That's why it isn't unclear who was fighting the flames before the ship was abandoned. We don't expect a ship to fight flames but the ship's crew would.
    In "trembling with fear, the clock struck midnight", there is no indication of who was trembling with fear. Ships have crews, but I don't know of any clocks
    with crews.
    The first sentence *could* be better, but it's easy to guess what is meant.
    Thanks.

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