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Author Topic: Under some circumstances, can a modifier dangle legitimately?  (Read 13807 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: April 02, 2011, 08:06:40 PM »

The following e-mail exchange is part of a running discussion on dangling modifiers, absolute phrases, and other aspects of English grammar between Mr. Roy Kagle and me. A previous discussion between us on the subject was posted in the Forum last January 11, 2011 and can be accessed by clicking this link to “Are there any circumstances when a modifier can dangle legitimately?” The set of examples of supposedly legitimate dangling modifiers provided by the Harbrace College Handbook was sent by Mr. Kagle by snail-mail much later than his e-mail below, reaching me several weeks later. This explains the significant time lag between Mr. Roy Kagle’s query and my reply to it.

E-mail from Mr. Roy Kagle in Annapolis, Maryland (January 23, 2011):

Dear Mr.  Carillo:
 
The Harbrace College Handbook, 4th.ed. (1956), page 285, mentions two circumstances when a modifier may “dangle” legitimately, to wit:
 
(1) When the gerund, infinitive or participle (in the subordinate clause) expresses a “general truth,” and
(2) When a noun and participle constitute a subordinate clause which is grammatically (and semantically) independent of the rest of the sentence.
 
I cannot recognize and distinguish between these two exceptions. Would you mind providing me with clearer explanations of these exceptions and with tests for distinguishing between them?
 
Roy Kagle

ADDENDUM TO THE ABOVE E-MAIL:
A few weeks later, I received from Mr. Kagle by snail-mail the following examples of sentences that, according to the Harbrace College Handbook, carry supposedly legitimate dangling modifiers:

(1) “Taking everything into consideration, the campaign was successful.”
(2) “To sum up, we all agreed to support the major.”
(3) “To judge from reports, all must be going well.”
(4) “The game having ended, we went home.”
(5) “No one having objected, the motion was passed.”

My reply to Mr. Kagle (March 10, 2011):

Dear Roy,

Before presenting my views regarding your questions, I would like to make sure first that we have the same understanding of what a dangling modifying phrase is. I gather from Page 3 of the material you sent me that you define a dangling modifying phrase—let’s call it “dangler” for short—as one that “has no actor or circumstance in the main clause to describe or to otherwise particularize”; in other words, it dangles because it doesn’t or can’t logically modify any word in the main clause.

In my case, I use the following more precise working definition for a dangler: it’s either a phrase or an elliptical clause (a dependent clause with an implied subject and verb) that serves as an adjective but does not modify any word or modifies a wrong one in the main clause. I prefer this definition because it takes care of quite a number of exceptional sentence constructions where your general definition for danglers is bound to fail. In fact, as I will demonstrate later, even the definition I offer for danglers would also fail in the case of absolute phrases if this definition isn’t tweaked to include the whole main clause itself as a grammatical element that can be legitimately modified by an absolute phrase.

Now let’s go to the first of the two circumstances that the Harbrace College Handbook says would allow a modifier to dangle legitimately: when the gerund, infinitive or participle (in the subordinate clause) expresses a “general truth.” Frankly, I am leery of the use of this very imprecise and misleading term; as I’m sure you know, the term “general-truth present” or “eternal-truth present” is the English-grammar term for stating scientific principles and general truths in the present tense, as in “The sum of the angles of a triangle is always equal to 180 degrees.” Indeed, I can find no “general truth” whatsoever—whether literally or figuratively—in these three sentences presented by the Harbrace College Handbook as examples for Exception 1:

 (1) “Taking everything into consideration, the campaign was successful.”
 (2)  “To sum up, we all agreed to support the major.”
 (3)  “To judge from reports, all must be going well.”

The participial phrases in the three sentences above—“taking everything into consideration,” “to sum up,” and “to judge from reports”—are actually idiomatic expressions that have evolved into phrasal verbs through long usage by native English speakers. (A phrasal verb, by definition, is a verb that in combination with a preposition or adverb behaves as a distinct syntactic and semantic unit, creating a meaning different from the original verb. For instance, in the sentence “The gullible customer, taken in by the used-car agent’s glowing sales pitch, bought the stolen car,” the phrasal verb “taken in” doesn’t mean the literal “admitted” but the figurative “deceived.”) By convention, therefore, these modifying phrases can validly modify the main clause even if that clause doesn’t have a doer of the action of the verb in the participial phrase. Those phrasal verbs phrases are therefore not danglers in the sense explained by the Harbrace College Handbook but legitimate modifiers serving as logical tags or contextualizers of the main clause.

Let’s proceed to the second circumstance that the Harbrace College Handbook says would allow a modifier to dangle legitimately: when a noun and participle constitute a subordinate clause which is grammatically (and semantically) independent of the rest of the sentence. This, in short, is the absolute clause exception.

Again, I disagree with the Harbrace College Handbook’s contention that the modifying phrases in the following sentences are modifiers that are dangling legitimately:

(4) “The game having ended, we went home.”
(5) “No one having objected, the motion was passed.”

The absolute phrase—otherwise known as nominative absolute and absolute clause—is a legitimate and logically working modifier that typically modifies the entire main clause, adding information or providing context to it in a grammatically valid way. This is the tweak in the definition of the absolute phrase that I suggested earlier. Indeed, by its nature and form, the absolute phrase is not required to directly modify a specific word or phrase in the main clause. It is therefore conceptually incorrect and misleading to call it a legitimate dangler; it is, for all intents and purposes, a perfectly functioning modifier.

For this reason, I don’t consider the modifying phrase “the game having ended” in the sentence “The game having ended, we went home” and the modifying phrase “no one having objected” in the sentence “No one having objected, the motion was passed” as dangling modifiers. Those two grammar elements are, in fact, absolute phrases legitimately modifying not any particular word or phrase in their respective main clauses but the whole of those main clauses. They are doing the grammatical job they are precisely meant to do.
 
Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo
« Last Edit: April 04, 2011, 01:40:41 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: April 23, 2012, 04:09:06 AM »

Hi Joe,

What an interesting email exchanges and the way you've explained to Roy catches my attention and it gave me a thought why not I read Roy's mentioned book. Can you give me link to this book "The Harbrace College Handbook" is it available at Amazon or iTune store so I can purchase it.
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