Forever dangling? The unstoppable dangling participle under scrutiny

Here is Ina Huttenga’s second blog post:

The dangling participle is a pervasive structure in the English language. These “misrelated” modifiers have been used throughout English language history, but they seem to have become problems only recently, in the 20th century (as Ingrid Tieken and Carmen Ebner will discuss in a forthcoming article). There is even an Old English attestation of the structure, as  F.Th. Visser has shown in his phenomenal Historical Syntax of the English Language (1966, Vol. 1, Part 2, 1996, p. 1073), and even famous English writers like Shakespeare used dangling participles, according to J. Lesslie Hall in English Usage (1917). Has the rule against them been grasped out of thin air?

A dangling participle is a participle acting as a modifier, that seemingly modifies the wrong subject (or object). However, as Carmen Ebner discusses in an English Today article, the resulting meaning problem may be disambiguated by the larger surrounding language context.

While the dangling participle is only a recent usage problem, it seems strongly condemned. A survey by Mittins et al. conducted in the late 1960s found a low 17% overall acceptability for the structure. A more recent survey of English usage items by the Bridging the Unbridgeable project yields a similarly low acceptability: currently 15.7%. However, another survey I conducted this year led to a much higher acceptability of dangling participles, and I will discuss this survey in this blog.

In my survey, I examined the structure using the following sentences:

S1 – Lying in my bed, everything seemed different.

S2 – If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost the company US $12 billion.

S3 – Barring unforeseen circumstances, the meeting will take place next Monday.

S4 – Tired and lonely, the photograph depicted her tear-stained face.

S5 – Generally speaking, the weather in France is agreeable.

S6 – Driving along the road, the supermarket appeared on our left.

S7 – The children ran into the house calling for her.

Two of the sentences would be considered correct by many usage guides, namely S5 and S3. Many  usage writers feel that these participles have become grammatical parts of the language and no longer dangle (e.g. Fowler, 1926). One sentence, S4, did not contain a dangling participle, but two dangling modifiers, namely misrelated adjectives. (Dangling participles are a subclass of these dangling modifiers.)

Unlike in the Mittins survey, I did not highlight the usage problems in the sentences, nor did I state what the survey was specifically about. Instead, I told participants that they should “judge … [the] grammatical accuracy” of sentences. I wanted to see whether respondents even noticed dangling participles. They were asked to indicate whether they found the sentence acceptable in informal speech, informal writing, formal speech, and formal writing, or in none of these settings.

81 people participated in the survey, about half of them native speakers of English. I calculated the average acceptability per sentence for the different registers, and these can be seen in the graph below, from the sentence with the lowest acceptability (S4) to the one with the highest, S3. For all the sentences together, the average acceptability was 49%. This includes S5 and S3, which would be accepted by many usage writers. If these sentences are removed, the average acceptability is 33%. Forty-two (52%) respondents knew what a “dangling participle” or “misplaced modifier” was. Of these the majority (38) noticed them in the survey.

grafiek Ina Huttenga

The average acceptability of the dangling participle in this survey was higher than that found in the Bridging the Unbridgeable survey (15.7% across the different registers see above). Some of the reasons for this may include the larger number of sentences judged, as well as the fact that participants’ attentions were not drawn to the misrelated participles. However, another important factor that probably affected the judgements was age. The participants in my survey were fairly young. 48 of my 81 participants (59%) identified themselves as being between 18-30 years old. T-tests also showed that age and value judgements were related: those below 30 were significantly less critical of the sentences than those above that age. It is quite likely that the younger age of my respondents led to a greater acceptability of the structure. Age has often been mentioned as a topic worth investigating in prescriptivism, and is also something that Ingrid Tieken and Carmen Ebner discuss in a forthcoming article.

The higher acceptability of dangling participles by young people begs a question: could it be that in future, the rule against the dangling participle, like that against the split infinitive, will be considered an out-of-date usage norm? In any case, it seems that, with its long usage history, the dangling participle will not disappear from the language any time soon.

Reference:

Mittins, W.H., Salu, M., Edminson, M., & Coyne, S. (1970). Attitudes to English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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