I was doing some staving-off-the-decline-of-my-brain reading when I came across this striking sentence:
Inching closer to the classroom, ideas are needed as to how explicit and implicit learning can best be harnessed and brought to bear on the acquisition task in a fashion that allows efficient progress and does not entail attempts to combine explicit and implicit teaching as separate endeavors with conflicting theoretical underpinnings, as has sometimes been proposed (see, e.g., R. Ellis 1993; Fotos & Ellis 1991; Willis 1993). (pp. 52-53)
Do you see what I saw? I don’t know why my radar was up in this regard, but that sentence contains a dangling participle. That is, the implied subject of the phrase “inching closer to the classroom” does not appear in the nearest independent clause ideally in the subject position adjacent to the participial phrase, or anywhere else for that matter.
(side note: I also mean someday to investigate usages of “but” meaning “please regard the previous clause as a hedge”, as in the first line above.)
The quote comes from none other than Mike Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-based Language Teaching. I wanted to see if my participle radar was mistuned, so I copy-pasted the relevant part of that quote on Twitter and asked whether my followers (that sounds pretentious) wires were tripped in the same way that mine were. I got into an interesting discussion, mostly with Tyson Seburn and Rob Sheppard, of the issues involved, and realized there was more to what made a dangling participle seem odd than a missing subject.
I had some hypotheses about the results.
Hypothesis #1: Dangling participles are less likely to trigger alarms when they are part of a well-worn and familiar phrase like “having said that”, regardless of the contents of the main clause. Rephrasings of those idiomatic expressions will be judged as less acceptable even when their literal meanings are similar. This is for well-known principles of idiomaticity, the same reasons we don’t demand normal grammaticality of phrases like “be that as it may”.
Hypothesis #2: Dangling participles seem less abrupt when their implied subjects are either the speaker OR the discourse/conversation/train of thought itself, even when these are nowhere to be found in the main clause. This came from a bit of reflection that A) the speaker and the discourse are always potential, ambient topics – discursive stowaways if you will – and B) I know many transitional phrases and discourse markers in Japanese work like this (although of course nobody considers this ungrammatical because not only participial phrases but all kinds of phrases in Japanese often lack subjects).
Perhaps also lending support to hypothesis #2, many familiar, idiomatic participial phrases (hypothesis #1) have the speaker or the discourse as their implied subject.
Hypothesis #3: Barring either of those scenarios, people will scan a sentence for a possible subject and try to make the dangling participle make sense. The danger in these cases comes when two plausible interpretations exist, as in “Running the light, Joe was hit by a drunk driver”, and not so much in Anguished English fodder like “Drooling on his shoes, Joe was greeted by his Great Dane”.
I base this hypothesis on the fact that we don’t make the demand of close proximity on all potentially ambiguous modifiers in English. Take prepositional phrases, for example – we don’t require that “I painted a picture of her in the late afternoon” mean I painted a picture depicting the afternoon (whenever I put brush to canvas), while “I painted a picture in the late afternoon of her” means I had my brushes out between 4 and 7 PM. We are usually capable of drawing out likely the most meanings through context, and I presume that when push comes to shove we’ll do the same for dangling participles.
Hypothesis #4: When the dangling participle is separated from its subject by an empty pronoun like “it” or “there”, people will disregard the empty pronoun and treat the next noun as the subject. This is because people will regard the empty pronoun as simply a placeholder and skip over it in their search for a referent for the participial phrase.
Hypothesis #5: When the implied subject is also the implied agent in a main clause in the passive voice (e.g. Spraying water, the fire was extinguished), the dangling participle will seem less jarring.
As we shall see, not all of these were correct. Or maybe they are, but I’d need a sample of more than 25 to say so.
I made a quick Google doc with a Likert-style 5-point scale of acceptability for 8 different sentences, all with dangling participles (still viewable here), tweeted the link around, and after a few days, compiled the results. The survey started with these instructions:
This survey presents participial phrases that would traditionally be considered “dangling”; that is, the participial phrases do not refer to the nearest noun. Please indicate how correct or incorrect you would regard these utterances in *written contexts*. Note that this is not only a grammaticality test; all of the utterances contain something that is traditionally considered an error. In your assessments, you may include or exclude considerations of grammaticality, comprehensibility, conventionality, or other factors at your discretion.
As the comments indicated, not everyone read this part. Anyway, I wanted to make clear that I was after more than just grammaticality. That part at least seemed clear to respondents.
Here are the sentences I wrote:
Rolling down the street, I saw a car. This is pretty close to a canonical dangling participle. The subject of “rolling down the street” should be “car”, not the nearest noun “I”. Still, the subject of the participial phrase is clearly present in the main clause, which may help its acceptability.
Standing at the podium, the students prepared for the teacher’s lecture. Unlike the previous sentence, the subject of the participial phrase is only present in the main clause as a possessive, i.e. not as the head of a noun phrase. If my hypothesis #3 is correct, the reduced salience of the subject sentence should be less acceptable than the last, although they are equally incorrect from a strictly grammatical point of view.
Pouring concrete, there is a construction crew in the street. The subject is separated from the participial phrase by a dummy pronoun (or adverb, I suppose). If my hypothesis #4 is correct, this sentence will be judged more acceptable than ones whose subjects are simply missing.
Moving on, the next topic is sales quotas. This combines my hypotheses #1 and #2 in that “moving on” is a well-used phrase and has the speaker or the discourse as its subject.
Knowing Bob, it’s his family that is distracting him from work. Same as the last sentence, “knowing (person)” is a well-worn phrase that has the speaker as its subject. Maybe this item was redundant. If so, the scores for one this and the last one should be about the same.
Looking everywhere, the key was finally found. The subject is the implied agent of a main clause in the passive voice, as in hypothesis #5. This should make it less objectionable to readers than a sentence where the subject is missing entirely.
Gradually culminating in true agriculture, plants were gathered from smaller and more prescribed areas around human settlements.
This one is tricky. The subject is the process described in the main clause, although that process is never nominalized. Further, it is wordy, which may work for or against it: for it in that people may forget exactly how the participial phrase was worded by the end of the sentence and settle for getting the gist, and against it in that it has no chance of ringing familiar like “having said that” or “moving on”.
Switching rapidly between topics, grammar was discussed in turn with semantics and pedagogy. This is a wordy phrase and a wordy sentence, giving it low familiarity, but the implied subject is either the speaker or the discourse itself, which should work in its favor.
You know what I realized now that I didn’t include at all? A sentence where the subject is not even hinted at as an agent or buried in a subordinate clause! Something like “Swinging with great force, the ball flew into the outfield”. Next time!
…Also, none of these participial phrases are past participles. I wanted to keep it simple this time.
This is for all surveyees. 5 is “Totally acceptable”, and 1 is “Totally unacceptable”. As you can see, there are two early leaders.
I asked surveyees for their relevant grammar experience and education level, but none of these produced significant changes in responses, so we can forget about them. For no reason at all though, I’ll just say that my Twitter feed appears to be highly educated.
On the other hand, there was a small difference in responses for people who said “comprehension” was a criterion for judgment. These were 18 of the 25 total repondents.
As opposed to clarity, 9 of the 25 respondents (some people gave multiple concerns).
I never gave or asked for operationalized definitions of “comprehensibility” or “clarity”. I assume comprehensibility meant that at least one plausible interpretation was possible, and that clarity meant that one interpretation was “clearly” more attractive than others. When respondents gave a longer explanation that seemed to coalesce around one of these definitions, I treated them simply as either “comprehensibility” or “clarity”. For example, “When it is understandable”, was reduced to “comprehensibility”. As you can see, the “clarity” respondents rated all the sentences lower overall. Since all the sentences were written specifically to buck the rules of clear writing, this is not surprising.
Only two respondents included grammaticality as criteria, so I haven’t bothered to compute averages for them.
So, the clear winner in producing acceptable dangling participles is idiomaticity or familiarity, particularly among people who valued comprehensibility. Let me go through the sentences for detailed results.
Rolling down the street, I saw a car. 1.92 acceptability with all respondents (1.94 just for comprehensibility and 1.78 for clarity). This was the second-lowest score. Its acceptability correlated with the next sentence’s acceptability with a score of 0.71, meaning that people who accepted one usually accepted the other and people who rejected one tended to reject the other too.
Standing at the podium, the students prepared for the teacher’s lecture. 2.12 acceptability (2.22/1.67). I wish I could say that this score and the last score support one of my hypotheses but since I neglected to include a “pure” dangling participle, it’s hard to tell whether including the subject in the main clause, but not adjacent to the participial phrase, caused these sentences to be evaluated more positively. What we can probably say that including the subject in the main clause somewhere other than adjacent to the participial phrase doesn’t help its acceptability by much.
Pouring concrete, there is a construction crew in the street. 1.88 acceptability (1.61/1.11). This surprised me. The subject of “pouring concrete” is only separated from the participial phrase by a dummy pronoun/adverb, yet this sentence was evaluated the least favorably of all. Perhaps the simplicity of the sentence overall invited readers to mentally compare it to an easily generated improved version (“Pouring concrete, a construction crew is in the street”), and therefore reject it due to its clear inferiority to this salient alternative? Or is it too jarring to try to imagine a “there” pouring concrete?
Mysteriously, this sentence’s score was correlated with the score for the “gradually culminated” sentence at 0.51. I have no idea what could be behind this.
Moving on, the next topic is sales quotas. 4.00 acceptability (4.22/3.88). Yes, the popular idiom which refers to the speaker got high marks.
Knowing Bob, it’s his family that is distracting him from work. 4.04 acceptability (4.22/3.78) And the other one did too. They were also correlated with each other at 0.59.
Looking everywhere, the key was finally found. 2.16 acceptability (2.22/1.89). Much like having its subject located elsewhere in the sentence as opposed to completely missing (see the first two items), having its subject implied as the agent of a passive construction doesn’t appear to help dangling participles become much less objectionable.
Gradually culminating in true agriculture, plants were gathered from smaller and more prescribed areas around human settlements. 2.88 acceptability (2.83/2.78). I wonder how the scores would have been for this one if I hadn’t told respondents in advance that it contained a dangling participle. Having considered that possibility, it’s also potentially true that the acceptability of dangling participles increases the longer the sentence overall gets, and the reader can no longer be bothered to look for grammar mistakes for a participial phrase that occurred 30 words ago – like in this sentence.
Thinking about this sentence has led me to hypothesize about a third discursive stowaway in addition to the speaker and the discourse itself, which is the content of another clause. This is also what is referred to by “which” in sentences like “It rained all summer, which helped the grass even if it killed my tomatoes”.
Switching rapidly between topics, grammar was discussed in turn with semantics and pedagogy. 3.00 acceptability (3.22/2.89) So a candidate for a 2nd-place-finisher after idiomaticity or familiarity is reference to the discourse itself as a potential saving grace of a dangling participle. Regrettably, I don’t have a survey item that tests reference to the speaker without using a common phrase, so I haven’t really tested hypothesis #2 properly.
To recap, here are my 5 hypotheses on how dangling participles can be made acceptable and how they fared:
1) Familiarity/Idiomaticity. This one seems to have the strongest support.
2) Reference to discursive stowaways (where the implied subject is the speaker, the discourse itself, or *update* the content of another clause). Possibly. Needs more research.
3) Presence of the subject somewhere else besides adjacent to the participial phrase. Probably not, or not by much.
4) Dummy pronoun/adverb. Probably not. Needs more research (see below).
5) Implied as the agent of a passive construction. Maybe a little bit.
Conclusions and next steps
So if there were a tl;dr version of this post, it would be “dangling participles are only barely acceptable when they refer to a few consistently available referents, such as the speaker, the discourse, or the contents of the next clause. They are much more acceptable when they are common idioms or set phrases used consistently the same way. Otherwise, avoid them.”
I drew up this survey and compiled its results in less than a week, and some issues slipped through the cracks. Here are some things I would do if I were to try this again:
- Test for acceptability of dummy “it” defined later in the sentence (cataphoric reference) – e.g. “Panting, it was the dog who seemed to dislike the heat the most”.
- Test for missing subjects who are not even an implied part of the main clause, e.g. “Moving in, the truck was full of furniture”. If all of my hypotheses are at least a bit correct, this should have the lowest score.
- Test more for the missing subjects being the content of the main clause, as in “Making a clear statement of its priorities, there was no comment from the White House on the ongoing crisis”. This was my third discursive stowaway.
- Test past participles, a la “Decimated, the Wu army’s families anxiously awaited their return home”.
Having posted this with mistakes, it has now been edited for clarity.