July 04, 2005

Dangling modifier in the Declaration of Independence

Language Log wishes you a happy Independence Day. And for those who listened this morning as the staff of NPR's Morning Edition read the Declaration of Independence all the way through on the radio, notice that there is a dangling modifier in there, in the list of complaints against the king:

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

Even with the preceding context, one tends to get a wrong reading on that last finite clause. Listen to it on its own: "When so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them." It sounds as if it's talking about occasions on which the king has been suspended (by his thumbs, perhaps). But it's supposed to be referring to occasions on which the laws were suspended prior to royal assent. It's a dangling modifier. It's just not a very bad one — not as baffling as the one by Ivan Watson that I commented on here, or the stunningly inept example that Arnold Zwicky spotted: unlike those, it's fairly easy to interpret.

The point to take away is not that the Declaration of Independence is badly written. It is a bit wordy, but it's a masterly and beautiful piece of writing. No, the point is merely that dangling modifiers have been around in English for hundreds of years, and even the best writers sometimes write them, and to say that they are syntactically barred simply doesn't account for the facts. It is a much subtler restriction than ordinary syntactic rules like that the precedes the head of its phrase. It's more like some kind of rule of linguistic etiquette, oft violated, as rules of etiquette usually are. One of the things that makes rules of syntax interestingly different from most kinds of rules is that they are mostly obeyed without hesitation or reflection, nearly all the time.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 4, 2005 03:30 PM