Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dangling Predicative

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2011

I don’t comment too much about dangling participles or misplaced modifiers, but today I just can’t resist. For a traditional take on them, read these episodes of Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast. But if you don’t want to read through all that, here’s an excerpt that illustrates with a good example:

A dangling modifier describes something that isn’t even in your sentence. Usually you are implying the subject and taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean—not a good strategy. Here’s an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The way the sentence is written, the birds are hiking the trail because they are the only subject present in the sentence.

The way that the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language look at these constructions is a bit different. First of all, they call them predicative adjuncts — predicative because they have understood subjects (and an understood be linking them to the relevant phrases like hiking the trail), and adjuncts because they modify the sentence instead of having some grammatical function like subject or direct object. These linguists don’t call them participles specifically, because predicative adjuncts can include prepositional phrases, noun phrases, and other kinds of adjective phrase. They don’t call them modifiers because predicates don’t modify their subjects; they predicate things of them. Second, as Geoff Pullum writes in this Language Log post,

The line we take on examples of this kind … is not that they violate the syntactic correctness conditions for English — they are simply too common for that to be the case. Roughly, what we think is that the syntax of English leaves things open for you to design your paragraphs in such a way that preposed non-finite adjunct clauses will, in context, be easily and naturally linked up with suitable understood subjects. And as always when you are left some freedom to do things whichever way you judge to be appropriate, you can screw it up. You can write something stunningly inept that baffles the heck out of an intelligent reader for several seconds.

I paraphrase this point of view briefly in this review of Fogarty’s first book. Predicative adjuncts are looking for a subject; the easiest ones to use are the overt NPs in the rest of the sentence, especially the subject. And at least for me, the subject of the sentence can grab on surprisingly tightly to the predicative adjunct, no matter how pragmatically ridiculous the resulting meaning is.

So the background on today’s bungled predicative adjunct is that last November a seriously messed up guy committed a gruesome, cold-blooded triple murder in Knox County, and compounded it with the kidnapping and rape of the teenage girl he allowed to survive. He has just been sentenced to life in prison, and now the newspaper is publishing the details of the investigation that led to the man’s arrest. One of the stranger details is that the murderer had millions of leaves in his house, many of them stuffed into plastic grocery bags that he had used to completely cover the walls of one room. What were they for? Here’s what The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch says:

Already a convicted arsonist, maybe the leaves had another purpose [i.e., a possible accelerant; NW] (link)

I’m familiar with the idea of leaf monsters, thanks to a Calvin and Hobbes strip, but the only danger they posed was that they might consume kids who jumped into them. That they might burn down your house is a new one to me.

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