A dangler in The Economist

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My view on the classic prescriptive bugaboo known as dangling modifiers or dangling participles (henceforth, danglers) is, I think, a bit unusual. I don't regard danglers as grammatical mistakes; that is, I think the syntax of English does not block them. Yet I do think they constitute mistakes, in a broader sense, so in a way I am with the prescriptivists on this one. A dangler is an error in a domain that I have compared (for want of a better way to put it) to courtesy or manners. I regard danglers as minor offenses against communicational etiquette, but not against grammar. The argument against danglers being grammar errors is simple: they are too common in even careful published writing, and come too fluently to the keyboards of even excellent writers, and are accepted without remark by too many educated readers. If you ask what evidence there is that, for example, verbs come before objects in English, the answer is that it is overwhelmingly clear from just about all of everybody's usage just about all the time, and from the blank "What's gone wrong with you?" reactions if you try putting the object before the verb. The evidence on danglers goes entirely the other way. Here, for example, is an example in the carefully edited prose of The Economist (October 3rd, 2009, p. 79):

A report to the British House of Commons this year highlighted the case of an elderly British citizen called Derek Bond, who was arrested, at gunpoint, in February 2003 while on holiday in South Africa. After being held for three weeks, it turned out that the American extradition request was based on a fraudster who had stolen Mr Bond's identity.

The only relevant thing the syntax says, I believe, is that subjectless non-finite clauses, and preposition phrases having such clauses as complement of the preposition, and predicative constituents such as adjective phrases, may be used as adjuncts.

And all the semantics says is that the target of predication in such cases is filled in by reference to a grammatically salient noun phrase (NP) in the immediate vicinity. That's it.

Consider in this light the task of interpreting the second sentence in the quotation above. After what? Somebody being held for three weeks. Who was held? We're guessing thus far, so let's wait and see what the subject of the matrix clause is… Hmm, the pronoun it. That's not very promising: what non-human could have been held? Let's go on. It turned out that… This makes it clear that the it was a dummy — a meaningless placeholder in a context where a complement clause is in extraposition (postponed till the end of the clause containing it). Well, what's the subject of the clause in extraposition? The American extradition request. But surely that is not what was held. Let's go on. Was based on a fraudster… Could the target of predication be a fraudster? No, that makes no sense. Any other NPs? Well, there is one more (though we're down to NPs that could hardly be called grammatically salient now): the object of stolen, namely, Mr Bond's identity. But that doesn't make sense either: this isn't about the South Africans holding the man's identity.

Wait a minute, though: if we look inside that NP we see that its determiner is the genitive NP Mr Bond's. Perhaps the thing to do is to ignore the genitive case on that and try Mr Bond as the target of predication. After Mr Bond had been held for three weeks. Yes, that would make sense. We'd better assume that.

You can get there. But what a struggle. Floundering around for what could be as much as an extra second, which in language processing is a very long time, there were four different false leads planted in the text for us to pursue — four NPs that were not the right choice for the target of predication we needed to plug together with the being held clause.

It is true that if we had looked back at the previous sentence instead of plowing on we would have noticed that there was an indefinite NP, an elderly British citizen called Derek Bond, which was a prime candidate. If we had happened to be still holding onto that, and we had tried plugging in a definite version of that ("the aforesaid elderly British citizen called Derek Bond"), it would have worked like a charm. But that NP was embedded in a larger one (the case of an elderly British citizen called Derek Bond), and following it we had read four other NPs (gunpoint; February 2003; holiday; and South Africa. Any syntactic salience that NP might have had was lost before we began the next sentence.

Hearers and readers can't be expected hold onto every NP they run across, keeping all of them live and active in short-term syntactic memory just in case perhaps one of them might be suddenly needed to make a subjectless clause adjunct interpretable. That's not how we work, or so it seems to me. Mostly we expect the sentences we encounter to be parsable independently: take any one of them on its own and you should be able to understand it down to the level where all that remains is assigning antecedents to pronouns and filling in gaps due to ellipsis. And that second sentence does not meet the condition. We had to fumble around and look all over the place to find a target of predication for the subjectless clause in the initial PP.

That's a shortcoming on the part of the writer. Not a disastrous blunder or a major display of ignorance; just a minor discourtesy to the reader. That's what I think danglers are.

But they are extraordinarily common, and they occur now and then even in what is in general terms excellent writing. The more sensitive to syntax you are, the more you will be struck by them and incommoded by them. The more you exercise your common sense rather than your syntactic sense when figuring out what a subjectless non-finite clause adjunct must mean, the less you will notice them. But they will be out there, in everything you read (somewhat less frequently in conversation because of its lower syntactic complexity — we don't use non-finite clause adjuncts so much when chatting about who's going to pick up the milk).

Just for fun (but not out of a lack of courtesy) I embedded a deliberate dangler in the paragraphs above. Now you will know how careful a reader you are. If you didn't notice it, that underlines my point that you probably do not operate by a set of syntactical rules that forbid danglers. And if you did notice it, and experienced that odd extra second of squirming around looking for a target of predication, then you'll know what I've been talking about.


  1. Rubrick said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    While I agree the sin is present, I didn't have much trouble parsing the sentence, largely because "After being held for three weeks" so closely echoed "Derek Bond, who was arrested" in concept. Who was being held? Obviously, the guy who was arrested.

    Clearly "After Mr Bond had been held for three weeks" would have been much better.

  2. Carl said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:33 am

    I find it much more difficult to figure out how to misparse these sentences than how to parse them.

  3. fs said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:07 am

    Just wanted to say that I love this post, haha. I guess I'm one of those who "uses his syntactic sense more than his common sense" when parsing sentences, so dangling modifiers do catch my ear, within as little as a second. But I must admit that, while I'm also one of those who uses non-finite clausal adjuncts in speech, I still do produce dangling modifiers from time to time. However, I make sure to start the sentence over as soon as I notice, often to the confusion (or amusement) of whoever I'm speaking to! :)

  4. Charles said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    It's likely that if someone noticed it, it was due to their prescriptive training rather than to some syntactic processing.

  5. Rod Whiteley said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 6:14 am

    I take it to mean that the extradition request was delayed (held) for three weeks. You, and others, seem to assume that only a person can be held. I find that assumption baffling.

    [This interpretation hadn't really occurred to me as a live possibility. But it's certainly available, either as the right answer or as one of the red-herring false leads. I didn't have any reason to rule it out, so I have altered the text abovenow. I never intended to rule out that blind alley; it was mere careless thinking and writing on my part. Thanks for pointing it out. —GKP]

    The writer's error seems to be in using a word like "held" that a reader might mistakenly apply to something mentioned in a previous sentence. Perhaps "considered" would have been a better choice.

    Perhaps the problem is that "held" is such a common word. It could apply to many things, while "considered" and "floundering" have more specific meanings that leave readers in less doubt about what they apply to.

  6. Levi Montgomery said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 6:16 am

    I admit I'm far from being a professional linguist of any stripe, but I did catch your dangler on the first reading. I feel compelled to not post a spoiler here, so as evidence of my own ear, I shall simply point out the two other items that held me back for an moment on the way by:

    "…just about all everybody's usage…"

    "…an ignorant display of ignorance…"

    [Just errors in typing; I was composing this post on a train after a long day, and I was tired! I've fixed things in the post above now. —GKP]
    *reads comment very carefully, several times, looking for foot-in-grammar disease…*

  7. Andrew Greene said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 7:00 am

    Colorless green ideas flounder furiously?

  8. notrequired said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 8:11 am

    This is interesting. I actually read the quote before reading the rest of the post and didn't notice that there was something wrong or strange about it. It was clear to me that Mr Bond was the one held. Perhaps this is attributable to the fact that, since the theme of the last part of the first sentence was the arrest of someone called Derek Bond, I automatically expected the rheme, which says that someone/something was held for three weeks, to refer somehow to the person whose arrest was mentioned in the theme?

  9. J. Goard said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 8:33 am

    Consider in this light the task of interpreting the second sentence in the quotation above…

    Is what follows meant to be a serious psychological hypothesis?

    [Of course not. I've amended the text to make that clear. —GKP]

    You seem to attribute too much importance to the sentence as a unit, in terms of linking semantic structures to the discourse context during on-line parsing. Isn't is far more likely that a hearer or reader attempts to link new semantic structures to context as they are being built, based upon strengths of activation in the prior state? For example, don't you get a strong "garden path" effect in (1), despite the sentence boundary?

    (1) John was shot five times during a fight. After nearly bleeding to death on the street, the suspect was charged with first-degree assault.

    [A very nice example of why we need more sophisticated analysis of the effects of context and assumptions! Nice work. Naturally, some things about the discourse get firmly established as you read through a text (or listen to somebody telling a story), and if you've attentive, plenty gets fixed, and leads you to form certain expectations. Danglers become alarming when not enough is fixed for you to find the target of predication effortlessly on the first try. —GKP]

    Hearers and readers can't be expected hold onto every NP they run across, keeping all of them live and active in short-term syntactic memory just in case perhaps one of them might be suddenly needed to make a subjectless clause adjunct interpretable.

    Of course not, but this is quite a straw man argument with respect to the case at hand. The NP in question is the single most prominent participant in the text, and the content of the clause in question is a temporal continuation from the preceding sentence, entirely in line with a reader's background assumptions about arrests. The cases of danglers that crash are likely to be those in which a less prominent nominal referent has faded, and/or the clause cannot be easily associated with a single nominal on the basis of background knowledge, narrative scripts, etc.

    [I agree entirely. And in practice I also found the intended target pretty quickly. And yet I noticed I had just been very slightly disrupted in my comprehension by a dangler. I don't think that was because I pay lots of attention to prescriptive bugaboos. I literally don't notice all the accusative subjects of gerund-participles I use, or the singular antecedents of they that I use. They are second nature. Nearly everything about reading English is second nature for me. But danglers disrupt that feeling of familiarity and comfort for a few fractions of a second. That's the phenomenon I'm trying to discuss. —GKP]

    But this one is 100% fine for me. I noticed it because I knew what I was looking for, but otherwise it wouldn't have fazed me. I'm dealing with a lot of spoken language transcriptions these days, particularly narration of cartoons and picture cards, which may make it easier for me to accept this kind of natural continuation.

  10. Joe said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    As a computer scientist, I think that these "sins" manifest sophisticated heuristic features of readership rather than writerly shortcomings. Given there's a perceived "struggle", I see 2 possibilities. Either the reader is not sophisticated enough to employ natural heuristics to parse the sentence correctly OR some high level feature (latent pedantry, perhaps, or "careful readership") causes the difficulty. GKP is obviously not unsophisticated, but I sometimes suspect that he's a rehabilitated or perhaps latent prescriptivist.

    [I repeat: I literally don't notice most aspects of prose that would annoy prescriptivists. But danglers unsettle me for a few fractions of a second. It's not voluntary; I can't help being taken aback just a tiny bit. —GKP]

  11. Lazar said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    I like the distinction that you make between grammar and communication etiquette – there are rules that I follow and advise others to follow (if I'm doing peer editing) when I write for school, even though I wouldn't consider violations of these rules to be ungrammatical or "bad English". I suppose the danger is that the construction of communication etiquette might allow silliness like the split infinitive prohibition or Fowler's "that/which" rule to encroach on our thinking, but I try to maintain an informed balance.

  12. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    I guess I don't have much syntactic sense, because I didn't catch your dangler, nor the one in the Economist until reading your explication.

  13. mgh said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    My favorite dangler, from among an anonymous peer reviewer's comments on a manuscript: "Although generally very clear and well written, the first sentence of the introduction is grandiose and out of place."

  14. Vance Maverick said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    Joe, I'm not sure why being a computer scientist makes it hard for you to entertain the possibility that features of the text matter, not just features of the reader.

    GKP, are you sure that the search matches the "Mr. Bond" inside that last NP? I would have said that it matched the phrase "an elderly British citizen…", in the previous sentence, which is pretty salient despite nesting. That is, the search is across a semantic field as much as across a "sentence".

    [No, Vance, I'm definitely not. I mused on the fact that if you were searching inside the second sentence of the quote you would have to come to the conclusion that Mr Bond was the target you sought; but in practice the fact that he had been mentioned in the previous sentence as being in the custody of the police would give that hypothesis a huge boost. I am NOT denying that in practice everyone carries over stuff from sentence to sentence. But danglers become troublesome for any reader who is not persuaded to carry over quite enough. The decision you face as a writer is whether to give sufficient help and guidance, e.g. by making sure you pick your main clause subjects to be maximally helpful. —GKP]

  15. John O'Toole said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    As a professional translator, I run across danglers all the time–and actually notice them in a not a few instances (yea for me). In the majority of cases, I would say, the sense is easy to suss out, almost immediately; but there are times when it does take either a little head-scratching, an exploratory confab with the author, time permitting, or a shot in the dark (yes, time rarely permits when you work on deadline). Translators should be model close-readers of a text; if they don't get it, then danglers may be, in some instances at least, more than mere infelicities. At least one dart from the peevologist's typical quiver, "for clarity's sake," seems to stick here, at least in a minority of cases. I work from the French mostly and the rules for danglers are the same as in English.

  16. J. Goard said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:42 am


    His grammar/communication distinction makes sense, but in this case communication quality is really high. Fumbling around? The reader is practically led by the hand! The main topic of the text is a man getting arrested, and the reader has to link a clause about getting arrested to that very guy. Geoff's comments about intervening NPs contributing to a loss of "syntactic salience" seems really dubious when the referent in question has got to be highly salient throughout the text. Pronouns, definite NPs, and unexpressed subjects (e.g., in Korean) are readily linked to prominent discourse referents that aren't overtly expressed in the immediate syntactic environment, and "dangling modifiers" seem to be pretty similar. How about the following?

    (2) John X. Smith grew up in a small town in Kentucky. His early life was wonderful, full of butterflies and birthday parties and endless sunshine. All the days were long and all the dreams were sweet. In fact, you might say that it's the closest thing to paradise that mortal man has ever seen. Yet, shortly after graduating from high school, tragedy struck.

    Does anybody here even miss a beat in interpreting the subject of "graduate"?

    [We don't remain perplexed and fail to figure it out, no. But the question is whether at least some of us involuntarily miss at least half a beat. —GKP]

  17. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    To J. Goard: I probably shouldn't try to speak for Geoff, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't intending his account of parsing the Economist sentence as a serious psychological hypothesis. Instead, I imagine he was describing the way many people suppose parsing goes on.

    [Arnold is absolutely right, of course. Later on I revised the text of the post to make this clearer. —GKP]

    In fact, for most people most of the time, parsing isn't the central issue in how we comprehend sentences with subjectless predicational adjuncts. The central task is finding a referent that can be understood as supplying the missing subject. (This is a search for a referent, something in the real world, not for an NP, a linguistic expression, though of course the NPs in the discourse provide clues to this referent.) I've maintained for some time that for a subjectless predicational adjunct to be easily comprehended, the referent in question needs to be highly topical/salient in the discourse ("prominent", in J. Goard's wording).

    There do seem to be people who, at least some of the time, expect this referent to be rigidly supplied by the syntax (via what I've called the Subject Rule); this might well be the result of explicit instruction, as some commenters have suggested. In any case, such people will be momentarily stymied by discourses where the referent is not supplied by the subject of the clause the adjunct is attached to, but in some other way (from previous discourse, by a modifier within the subject, by a later NP in the main clause, especially when the subject is a dummy, etc.).

    I'd expect that people who haven't become committed to the Subject Rule would have no trouble with the Economist sentence.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    Though I dislike danglers (at least partly because of my prescriptivist training), I mostly agree with J. Goard.

    In general, if readers can be asked to find antecedents for pronouns and to fill in ellipses, I don't see why they can't be asked to find subjects for subjectless clauses.

    J. Goard's comments make me wonder whether there's some rule for what danglers refer to. Is it always some highly salient topic of the discussion, whether or not it's salient in the syntax?

    By the way, I'm not fluent in Spanish, but I have the impression that even prescriptivists in Spanish write danglers all the time, and no one thinks there's anything strange or wrong about them.

    (On another topic, I noticed the usual British "called" versus American "named". My reaction as an American to "an elderly British citizen called Derek Bond" is "Why didn't they use his real name?")

  19. Terry Collmann said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    Rod Whiteley: if you've taken it that the extradition request was "held for three weeks", you'd be wrong, and the dangling participle has caught you, it was Mr Bond who was held:

    "British pensioner Derek Bond, who was today released from a 21-day spell in custody in South Africa, has hit out at the American authorities who held him."

    [Oh! Lovely. You've actually found a news item that tells us explicitly what the target of predication was so that we don't have to guess. Rod was wrong. Nice work. —GKP]

    An extradition request, in any case, would be held up, not held.

    Spoiler alert: Geoff's own dp begins "Floundering …", but I only spotted it on the second reading, having carried backwards in my first reading the idea tat "[You are] Floundering …".

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    And all the semantics says is that the target of predication in such cases is filled in by reference to a grammatically salient noun phrase (NP) in the immediate vicinity.

    But the 'immediate vicinity' is limited by the sentence boundary as far as the listener or reader is concerned. He looks for the grammatically salient noun phrase after the adjunct, not before, which is why this phrase is ambiguous:
    John was shot five times during a fight. After nearly bleeding to death on the street, the suspect was charged with first-degree assault.The first grammatically salient noun phrase is 'the suspect', yet we have loads of other prior information to suggest that the writer was thinking of John nearly bleeding to death.

    To me it's a question of the writer/speaker taking his eye off the ball, or to be more precise keeping his eye on the wrong ball. He sits thinking about what came before and then goes on to a new topic, but the construction of the phrase has the break at another place. And there are numerous examples of ungrammatical speech when people take their eye off the ball.

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    I'd expect that people who haven't become committed to the Subject Rule would have no trouble with the Economist sentence.

    I'm not overly committed to the subject rule but was confused by the Economist quote. One the other hand this one would not cause any problems to me. In February 2003, Derek Bond, who was holidaying in South Africa, was arrested at gunpoint. After being held in detention for three weeks, the police released him.
    I believe the answer is, as Arnold says, that the noun phrase must be very salient to cross the sentence boundary, and also of course that there must not be another very possible candidate when going forward.

  22. Stephen Jones said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    if readers can be asked to find antecedents for pronouns and to fill in ellipses, I don't see why they can't be asked to find subjects for subjectless clauses.

    The answer lies in the word 'antecedent'. We look behind us for the antecedent of a pronoun, but we look ahead for the subject of a subjectless phrase.

  23. Faldone said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    Geoff is a syntactician and he hasn't gotten on board with the old saw:

    If the only tool you have is a hammer, any problem that doesn't look like a nail is somebody else's problem.

    I think many of us non-syntacticians, having neither hammers nor saws, read the sentences for meaning and don't have any problems with the danglers. We don't worry about keeping a stack of NPs that we have to pop each time we need one to fill some sort of syntactic slot.

    [You think you don't, Faldone. But it's not in your job description or mine to find out, unless you are a practicing experimental psycholinguist. You have no idea what your brain does to manage your utterance processing. —GKP]

    In general the only problem I have with danglers is that sometimes they end up sounding silly. This is a style problem and not a grammatical one.

    [This sounds very much like you imagine that I have said there is a syntactic constraint at work here. But of course the whole point of the piece I wrote is to motivated the claim that this is not a syntactic matter! I do hope you are paying attention during class and not leaving your iPod earbuds in. —GKP]

    The only other problem I have with danglers is that, sounding silly or not, I have to brace myself for the pululating poppycock of prescriptivists.

    [Yes; as with anything on which the prescriptivists are especially hot under the collar, even if you find them 100% acceptable you have to keep in mind that there will be people out there playing gotcha. —GKP]

  24. D Sky Onosson said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    I read this post initially while in a blurry state following a night of only four hours' sleep. It took me several reads to see anything "wrong" with the quote. And after rereading the article (while trying not to think about syntax) I can't find anything else that trips me up either. Of course, anyone can find fault with just about anything if they really want to.

  25. Ellen said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Stephen Jones: Who's "we". Evidently, some of us do, at least some of the time, take subjectless phrases as referring back to something already mentions.

  26. Picky said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Faldone: Prof Pullum's description of dangling as a lack of courtesy rather than a grammatical error sounds very much to me like he's saying it's a style issue.

  27. Faldone said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 12:45 pm


    I was mostly responding to his detailed analysis of the effort that some have to go through to understand the sentence in the first place There is a bit of the Golden Rule fallacy1 here. Those of us who would understand the sentence in context often fail to foretell the problems it would create in those who need to parse it.

    1. The Golden Rule fallacy is based on the assumption that what one wishes done unto oneself is what others wish done unto them. This assumption is not always true.

    [Again: I absolutely agree. People differ. What I process syntactically, you may process purely on semantics or common-sense assumptions. There is even evidence — and this is truly remarkable — that left-handers and people with left-handed relatives are more prone to do the latter than right-handers are! (References not yet looked up; but delve into the psycholinguistic literature looking for work on this by Thomas G. Bever and by Wayne Cowart.) —GKP]

  28. peters said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    To confuse things a bit. According to the BBC story, after Mr. Bond was detained by South African police a South African court ruled that he could be extradited to the U.S., "but it was put on hold, pending final determination of his identity." So it's possible that Mr. Bond and the extradition request were held for three weeks–the extradition request "held" in the bureaucratic sense and Mr. Bond held in the more literal sense.

  29. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    Stephen Jones, responding to "if readers can be asked to find antecedents for pronouns and to fill in ellipses, I don't see why they can't be asked to find subjects for subjectless clauses": "The answer lies in the word 'antecedent'. We look behind us for the antecedent of a pronoun, but we look ahead for the subject of a subjectless phrase."

    Things are much more complicated than this. First, elements that are referentially linked to expressions — some pronouns, some ellipses, in particular — sometimes follow these expressions, sometimes precede them. A terminologically scrupulous person would distinguish these as, respectively, anaphoric (backwards-looking) and cataphoric (forward-looking) linkages (involving anaphors and cataphors, respectively) and would distinguish the expressions these "phoric" elements are linked to as, respectively, antecedents and postcedents. But usage by linguists routinely fails to distinguish the two types of "phors" (with anaphor(a) used for both, so that cataphora ends up being labeled "backwards anaphora", when the direction of the linkage needs to be specified), and linguists' usage routinely fails to distinguish the two types of "cedents" (with antecedent used for both; I don't know of anyone who refers to "postcedents"). As if so often the case, etymology is not destiny.

    So, with antecedent before anaphor: [personal pronoun] Before John left, he asked a question; [VP Ellipsis] Energy now divides Europe, as Communism once had. And with anaphor before antecedent: [personal pronoun] Before he left, John asked a question; [VP Ellipsis] As Communism once had, energy now divides Europe.

    Subjectless predicational adjuncts involve a species of ellipsis, and either order is possible: Until entering an American university, Klaus went to school in Germany; Klaus went to school in Germany, until entering an American university.

    (As I've noted a number of times, the relationships here are, strictly speaking, between some item and a referent, not between two items. The role of the antecedent is to help in referent-finding. But for many purposes, the common framing of the relationships as between an "anaphor" and an "antecedent" is harmless.)

  30. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    I've now assembled an inventory of postings on danglers, available here.

  31. Stephen Jones said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    Subjectless predicational adjuncts involve a species of ellipsis, and either order is possible:

    True but there are limitations; I would say the sentence break is a fairly hefty one for predicational adjuncts, and that I can't bring to mind a cataphoric use of a personal pronoun when it's in a main and not a subordinate clause. (Open to correction though).

  32. Stephen Jones said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    With regard to main and subordinate clauses look at these two examples:
    *He paid to go in the cinema, and John watched the film all the way through
    John paid to go in the cinema, and he watched the film all the way through.

    I still suspect that we start our search for pronoun referents going backwards, and for subjectless adjunct precedents going forward unless one is already salient.

  33. Mr Punch said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    I don't want to go all korzybski here, but how many danglers arise from misuse of the word "being," as here? Nobody seems to have any idea what it is, or means. I keep hearing things like, "The reason being is…"

  34. D.O. said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    Adding to the discussion of the baggage we carry forward while reading, I found (subconsciously) the idea that it was the request that was held for 3 weeks improbable because there was no reason why the British House of Commons would be exercised over some request from USA being held [up] in South Africa.

  35. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    There's a poem by Koenraad Kuiper (who is a linguist as well as a poet, by the way) that goes like this: "Placing his rubbish / By the road / the old man's / bum / Shows / through torn trousers." (The lines beginning with a capital letter are ranged left. The others are variously indented.)

    Is that a dangler or not? I've never been able to make up my mind. It's obviously the old man who puts his rubbish by the road, not the old man's bum.

  36. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    While agreeing that the dangler in the Economist sentence causes a processing blip, I want to suggest an alternative explanation for the blip's cause.

    Rather than stemming from a difficulty in identifying referent of the ellipsed subject of the adjunct clause, the problem (it seems to me) is that the adjunct clause sets up expectations that the matrix clause doesn't deliver on.

    I suspect that for most people, the referent is easily identified as the poor guy who was locked up, based on the assumption that the text is coherent. And a reader with that understanding would expect the clause to be followed by a matrix clause that continues to talk about the guy and that therefore starts with he or Mr. Bond But they see that the matrix clause really starts it turned out, they hit a bump.

    Hence the blip.

    The sentence presents sort of a reverse garden-path situation. The reader starts going down the right path, until all of a sudden he reaches the matrix clause and gets momentarily pushed off the path and into the bushes.

  37. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    Oh shit, I see I've mentioned that poem of Koeper's before on LL: my apologies!

  38. Nathan Myers said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    Might we be allowed to treat the problem cognitively, rather than only linguistically?

    By analogy, we tread the walkway, our legs swinging to the rhythm of our cerebellum. A protruding root presents us no real difficulty as we step over it, but it does engage our cerebral cortex, disrupting our rhythm, maybe even drawing conscious attention: "why doesn't somebody do something about that?"

    By this analysis, it's not only syntactic (if it is), not only stylistic, and not just a matter of courtesy. Good writing is an exercise in guiding the reader's attention where it will do the most good. Danglers, like any other infelicity, interfere with that process.

  39. wren ng thornton said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    I do agree that there's nothing syntactically wrong with danglers. Though I'm suspect of the claim that there ought to be anything semantically wrong either. Like Carl, I find it difficult to misparse these sentences, and have difficulty even noticing them without my maven cap on.

    Perhaps it can be blamed on studying head-final languages, or languages fond of dropping arguments, or languages fond of multiclause sentences, but keeping a working memory of salient topics in the local discourse doesn't seem like a terribly challenging task. Even speakers of languages without those traits do this all the time (witness J. Goard's garden-path example). Not to mention that named individuals are extremely salient topics, no matter what their syntactic role. Moreover, the missing subject of danglers does not seem to behave like a trace (as is suggested by those wanting to restrict search to the sentence), so it's reasonable to expect that it's discourse semantics rather than syntax or sentential semantics which is in play.

    All that said, one can certainly construct horrific examples to prove the rule. However, doing so says more about when/why danglers are acceptable than about when they're not. So there are, perhaps, reasons for writers to minimize danglers when aspiring to maximize clarity, but there's no more sin in using them than in speaking while confused or being poor with words.

  40. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

    @Stephen Jones: I think you're right that we do tend to look forwards for the referents of subjective noun phrases, but it's still not surprising that people could understand it easily by looking backwards.

    On another subject, GKP's frequent use of "etiquette" to describe this has the wrong connotations for me. "Etiquette" is, as he said, not "rinsing your fingers in the consommé, or eating the butter from the butter dish." In other words, it's things that don't affect other people directly. (I may be falling into the etymological fallacy here.) Writing something unclear or needlessly difficult is more substantive.

    I'm not sure "style advice" is the most precise term either. Style covers ease of reading, but it also covers vividness, it covers rhythm, it covers anaphora in the rhetorical sense. If danglers really make readers hesitate, I'd call them inconsiderate.

  41. David Green said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:06 am

    Interesting example of an easy-to-parse "dangler" on KCBS for a couple of weeks: "As a mother of four, my house is …"

  42. J. Goard said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:17 am


    the relationships here are, strictly speaking, between some item and a referent, not between two items

    Good point. But when you say "item", do you mean an overt NP? Some dangling participial modifiers seem natural with a general subject implied:

    (3) When taking a shower, water conservation is especially important.

    I would say, rather, that the relationship is between a semantic role in a construction, and a referent to which it gets linked. Supplying the referent might fall upon any of the usual suspects: recent mention, high salience within the text, shared world knowledge, deixis, "bridging"/"associative reference". Of course, if is an empirical question how readily speakers/writers will use any of these processes with any given construction. There's only so much we can say before we have to get our hands dirty with dialect, idiolect, and change.

    Neal @ 5:48:

    Your account makes sense. Then the interesting questions, I think, are whether all such matrix causes cause the same derailing, and whether they do so differently for different people. I think this thread has gone a long way toward answering the second question in the affirmative. But how about the first question? Isn't there a big difference for you between an example where the matrix subject is at least somewhat pragmatically plausible as filling the role in the dangler (4), and ones where there is only an "expletive" subject or abstract noun (5)-(6)?

    (4) Shakespeare was awesome! After writing The Tempest in three days, King James gave him a high-five.
    (5) Dr. Chung toiled for decades, poor and unrecognized. After winning the Nobel Prize, though, it got much better.
    (6) After kissing you for the first time, the whole world became more vibrant.


    Yeah, this thread has made me wonder too about the effect of Korean "pro-drop" on my native English. Probably high-frequency constructions are not going to be affected, but I wouldn't be surprised if relatively rare and diverse constructions like dangling modifiers show an effect somehow.

  43. Russell said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    Though the missing subject is only explicitly present as a possessor, one understands Mr Bond as the undergoer of the "extradition." Sort of like this:

    The city-organized town hall meeting was decidedly not a success. Even after being advertised for a month, the turnout was fewer than twenty people.

    Not a "grammatically salient NP," though one wonders how such salience is established.

  44. Pekka said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    This is from a book blurb, as reported by the September 2009 Ansible ( http://news.ansible.co.uk/a266.html#26 ).

    Initially appearing in Mesopotamian art in the first millennium BC, Lavers illustrates how unicorns soon became immortalized in the speculative writings of Greek philosophers.

  45. Mark F said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    I think the Subject Rule really is a part of my idiolect. I'm sure I sometimes violate it, but the sentences it's used in are often complicated enough that such a performance error shouldn't be surprising. But, looking at the Bond sentence, I really felt like the referent syntactically ought to be "It", which of course doesn't make sense.

    Is there really necessarily an answer to whether the prohibition on dangling modifiers is a rule of syntax or not? What if it's a property of the language that subjectless predicational adjuncts take the subject of the next clause as a referent about X percent of the time?

  46. Adrian said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

    Going right back to the beginning, I agree that danglers can hardly be classed as mistakes when they are so common and (9 times out of ten) easy to understand. Some grammarians have tried to force our sentences to be logical, as if language was mathematics – and have succeeded in the case of double negatives, for example – but grammar should simply be about the analysis of language as is.

  47. Tom Donahue said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I'm also a professional translator, mainly from Japanese, and I see danglers all the time. As you know, subjects can be omitted in Japanese. In fact they are omitted more often than not, whenever the reader can be expected to figure out what is going on. Part of the work of translating from Japanese is to put the subjects back in, which can involve a good deal of thinking and guesswork. Beginning translators and especially non-native speakers tend to skip this step and resort to danglers.
    For example, this sentence, which I encountered yesterday: "While repeating picture recording/playback with a certain recording medium for an extended period, files in the medium may be fragmented, disabling proper recording/storage." What makes this confusing is that the author just might have wanted to talk about video files that play themselves repeatedly. It takes a second or two to realize that he didn't.
    This style is a faithful reflection of the Japanese, so commissioning clients tend to like it. Unfortunately it's a lot of work for the reader. As a reader, I resent having to do work that the translator should have done for me. That's also my feeling about danglers in general.

  48. Troy S. said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    I once get red marks on an English paper in elementary school for writing "She threw a jar at the snake, killing it." Surely there is not much of a semantic struggle to grasp its meaning, and even if there were, revising it to "She threw a jar at the snake and killed it." would remove the dangler but not improve the semantic relationships significantly.

  49. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 6:33 am

    To David Green, about his KCBS "As a …" example: there are several types of non-default SPARs that are generally unproblematic — "As a …" SPARs, in particular, at least with certain syntactic configurations in the main clause. If the subject of the main clause is of the form human possessive + non-human head ("my house"), then the possessive can easily supply the subject of the SPAR, as in your example. This is especially so when the subject is first person singular (though I have other cases). A few other types from my collection:

    As a linguist, what struck me especially about his work on meaning in natural language was his belief that…

    As a mathematician, people often ask me…

    As first assistant, the company was placed in my charge, a heavy responsibility I would like to have had placed on someone else.

    As a former English teacher, nothing could be sweeter than to hear my little girls begin to speak.

  50. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 7:18 am

    To Troy S. on "She threw a jar at the snake, killing it": it looks like your teacher was a victim of a hypothesis about English grammar, namely the idea that modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the things they modify (the Nearest Rule). This is not entirely a bad idea, but it's bad news when it's combined with the belief that a SPAR modifies the noun (well, really, the NP) that supplies its subject. The combination of ideas says that a sentence-final SPAR (like "killing it") must modify the NP nearest to it (in this case, "the snake"); otherwise, as in this case, it counts as a dangling modifier and that's a Bad Thing.

    In fact, sentence-final SPARs like this one tend very strongly to obey the Subject Rule rather than the Nearest Rule, to the point that writers who hope to have a SPAR understood as associated with a NP immediately preceding it often produce comically bad sentences, like "Shawn walked on to the stage, festooned in well-wishing posters and blue and yellow balloons" (the writer intended to convey that the stage was festooned in this fashion, but instead the sentence conveys that Shawn was festooned).

    There was absolutely nothing wrong with your sentence.

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