December 14, 2003

Dangling etiquette

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

"Does this fall under the no dangling modifier prescription?", asks Rosanne, in a post on The X-bar. Yes, Rosanne, it does. Like participles, adjectives and also some idomatic preposition phrases, when used as adjuncts, need an understood subject (or, it might be better to say, a target of predication) to be filled in if they are to be understood. The prescriptive tradition says that the subject filled in must be the one obtained from the subject of the matrix clause. Here that would be your guests, which makes a nonsense reading, so the sentence cited would be treated as an error.

But the prescriptivists have a problem. Sentences of this kind, which call for you to fill in the understood subject from somewhere else (here, the subject of is light in the subordinate clause), are so common that when I and several friends have spent some time picking new ones up from print and radio sources, we get them at a rate of as many as one per day. That's in edited sources, where grammatical errors have almost entirely been screened out. This just cannot be syntactic error. It's too frequent.

I definitely think that sentences that make you twist this way and that, hunting for the intended subject, are ill-written and discourteous. But it simply isn't reasonable to say that they are syntactic errors. We follow our syntactic rules so much better than we follow this principle of courtesy. The syntax of English says (for example) that the subject should precede the predicate in a normal declarative: The cat wants to go out rather than *Wants to go out the cat. Ever seen anyone get that wrong? I thought not. People mostly know their syntax. Dangling modifier cases fall down on simple courtesy. It's manners, not grammar, that's what I think.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 14, 2003 12:39 AM