What follows is an abstract for an academic conference (explanation to come) on “dangling modifiers” in context. This is only an abstract, with a 200-word limit and no space for a bibliography (though I’ll add two items below).
The context of danglers
Though “dangling modifiers are common, old, and well-established in English literature” (MWDEU), they have been disparaged since the late 19th century – but handbook examples are often invented and usually cited without context. The absence of context is not an accident: it follows from the assumption that the Subject Rule (SR, saying that SPARs, Subjectless Predicative Adjuncts that Require a referent for the missing subject, must have this subject supplied by the subject of the clause the adjunct modifies) is a rule of grammar rather than a rule of thumb guiding sentence processing. If it’s a rule of grammar, then sentences are well-formed or not as they stand; no amount of context could fix that.
I first trace the route to the position that SR is an absolute: a proscription is formulated (to which a prescription is the remedy), then the prescription is promoted from advice about effective language to a rule of grammar, regulating what is acceptable as standard.
Then I note classes of cases where, even without context, X-SPARs (SPARs not obeying SR) are acceptable:
(as-a SPAR) As a linguist, this work impressed me greatly
(dummy subject) After writing that book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.
These cases cast doubt on SR as a condition of grammar, suggesting instead that it’s a heuristic in sentence processing (so that problematic X-SPARs err by leading to difficulties in processing; they are inconsiderate, not ungrammatical).
Finally, I explore a variety of cases where linguistic context, background knowledge, and discourse organization can make X-SPARs unobjectionable. From Shetter (2000), for instance, the example:
Driving along, the house appeared.
We got in the car and started off. Driving along, the house appeared on the left after a few minutes.
the sentence is perfectly clear.
Shetter, William Z. 2000. Driving along, the house appeared: Participles that ‘dangle’. Link.
AZBlog, 7/24/11, Disregarding context. Link.
I’ll post on Shetter in a while. For now: the sad history of this abstract.
I submitted it in e-mail back in mid-August, and then waited six weeks to hear the judgment of the abstracts committee. I then went back to the Sent folder in my mailbox and discovered a typo in the address. The correct address began with “am”, but I had typed “avm” — in moving from the “a” to the “m”, my non-functional little finger must have hit the “v” — and somehow the message wasn’t bounced back to me.
So maybe next year.