Most of the usage problems studied by Mittins et al. in the late 1960s (Attitudes to English Usage, 1970) have since increased in acceptability. This is what we tested by repeating their survey in the form of usage polls on this blog, and it is what Carmen Ebner and I, for some features at least, reported on in our article ‘Prescriptive attitudes to English usage‘, published last year. To our surprise, though, we found that dangling adjuncts (as in Pulling the trigger, the gun went off) had increased least of all. Why hadn’t it? Good question, but today I want to raise a different question.
My question today has to do with the announcement of an interview with the Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen on the front page of yesterday’s NRC Weekend, a quality Dutch newspaper. “Als kind was Jezus mijn grote voorbeeld,” it reads. In English: “As a child Jesus was my great example.” Surely this was not right? But the interview actually did cite Esther Gerritsen’s words like this. It must be professional deformation that made me trip over this even in Dutch, but more interestingly, why is there such a difference in attitude to the dangling adjunct between the Dutch and the English? Finding out that he had used a dangling participle in a letter to the editor made Ian McEwan cringe with embarrassment (Mother Tongue), but clearly not Esther Gerritsen or the NRC editors. How come there are such different attitudes to the dangling adjunct between these two languages?