May 12, 2005

The Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct

As I have previously mentioned, I belong to a small circle of syntacticians collecting attested "dangling modifiers". Dangling modifiers are (and I will not be very precise about this) predicative adjunct constituents, usually at the beginning a clause, that are semantically in need of a target for the predication they express, but don't get one in the sentence where they appear. Usage books tend to illustrate them with examples like Trembling with fear, the clock suddenly struck midnight (who was trembling?), and they condemn them more or less sternly. Our group is on the lookout for them not because we want to rail against them or ridicule their authors for grammatical sins, but in a way it is for the opposite reason: we are convinced that dangling modifiers are so frequent in real life that they cannot possibly be syntactically forbidden. The prohibition has got to be due to a more subtle preference, and we are not quite sure how it should be made precise. Most people don't notice dangling modifiers at all when they occur. We notice them, however, and we thought the following three (one from the front page of The New York Times!) were really quite striking.

  1. After reporting that the University of California, Santa Cruz, planned to increase its enrollment considerably, a Santa Cruz local newspaper said:

    Thrown on top of such already existing problems as traffic congestion, a water shortage and housing capacity, the angry roar of a response from residents and local government was deafening.

    What was thrown on top of traffic congestion? Surely not the angry roar?

  2. In the same paragraph the same newspaper remarked that the new Chancellor at UCSC had negotiated that her partner would also be offered a high-salaried position, and the paper continued:

    While a common practice in any large corporation or university, students in Santa Cruz, who have seen tuition double and classes cut, were none too pleased.

    What's the common practice? Students?

  3. And don't think it's just local papers in small towns. Arnold Zwicky just caught this one in teaser on page 1 of The New York Times:

    That Wolfgang Puck introduced a new latte line may not be surprising, but the container, which heats itself, is. By pressing a button on the bottom, water mixes with quicklime, producing a chemical reaction that heats the coffee.

    Who presses the button? Water?

These are classic dangling modifiers, as clear and plangent as we can imagine. To me they look startlingly bad; I don't think it would be at all silly to propose going back and rewriting to correct them. (Compare with the nonsense about changing which to that in integrated relative clauses: the editors who demand that are just being silly, and wasting the authors' time. There is no unclarity introduced if which is used to introduce an integrated relative; there is no rule forbidding it, and no grammarian who has worked on describing Standard English thinks there ever was.)

If the three examples above seem fine to you, then you use a variety of English that doesn't have the prohibition against dangling that most usage handbooks try to enforce (there may well be such varieties, perhaps quite widespread). But if the above examples seem ungrammatical to you and you are amazed they appeared in print, then get ready to be surprised by the linguistic world around you, because they are coming thick and fast, and we collect new ones all the time.

(We need a name for our group, incidentally. But ‘The Danglers’ sounds like a rockabilly band. Something Tolkienesque would be nice. I wonder if my colleagues would go for ‘the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct’?)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 12, 2005 03:07 PM