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I frequently see statements in the form of this one:

As a skilled computer programmer, this new language is crap.

I think that’s ungrammatical, but can’t explain why. I think it’s because the part before the comma doesn’t correctly attach to the second part.

I would rewrite it,

As a skilled computer programmer, I find this new language to be crap.

Because I think the first part has to attach to “I” or the verb “find”, which is done by the subject “I.”

Please educate me and others.

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Where do you "see" such statements? This is just converstational usage. It's implied meaning is understood. I don't think you'd read this sort of text but hear them. –  itsols Sep 21 '13 at 3:38
I see this form on Reddit nearly every day. –  Dave Briccetti Sep 21 '13 at 4:06
As someone with English as a strong second language, I find your assessment to be correct. –  mplungjan Sep 21 '13 at 5:05
One could fix this "problem" by adding one word to the front: Speaking as a skilled computer programmer, this new language is crap. This is essentially a pronouncement of opinion by one with a certain credential, not unlike: Being a dentist, I can't recommend chewing gum. I'd call your original sentence "clumsy", but "ungrammatical" seems a bit harsh. If such constructs were disallowed, language would become more wordy than it needs to be: "Speaking as a programmer with several years of experience in many programming languages, I've evaluated this new one, and have concluded: it is crap." –  J.R. Sep 21 '13 at 10:28
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3 Answers

The sentence "As a skilled computer programmer, this new language is crap" contains an example of what is often called a dangling modifier. Careful writers avoid such usage because they know that some of their readers will react negatively to it.

An example of an egregious dangling modifier is the following, which is the first sentence in an article in the Guardian newspaper:

Driving past Hampstead Heath pond to chase an interview the car radio was tuned in to the 2pm news.

The dangling modifier in the OP's question is As a skilled programmer. The famous prescriptivists Strunk and White offer a similar example:

As a mother of five, and with another on the way, my ironing board is always up.

A brief analysis of this sentence can be found in the Wikipedia Dangling Modifier page, which also contains examples of other variations of the same problematic usage.

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As has been stated, the first example is a classic "dangling modifier." By dangling modifier, I mean that your sentence has an dependent clause (As a skilled programmer ...) that isn't modifying or supporting an independent clause.

So in other words, the meaning of the sentence, "As a skilled computer programmer, this new language is crap," is unclear.

To me, that says,"This new language is crap as a skilled programmer."

The second example fixes the problem by making clear what the clause is modifying, which is clearly you. You are correct in your assessment that the subject of the sentence is unambiguous only in the second sentence. There's no subject at all in your first; or rather, the subject in the first example is "this new language."

At the very least, every sentence must have a bare minimum on one independent clause (i.e. a clause that is by itself a complete sentence). While your sentence does technically contain an independent clause, it's functioning similarly to a dependent one because, logically, the language in and of itself can't possibly do programming, suggesting that the subject was omitted.

This is not a big error in speech among peers, but in formal writing, it would be taboo. I understood it because it's the only logical/possible interpretation. This is an error that I'd avoid in academic/professional writing and is something I would avoid both in speech and in writing in front of a prospective employer. But, in this case, it's more a case of speaking/writing to your audience.

Note that while your example was clear despite not being grammatically correct, there are times when dangling modifiers can make a sentence have multiple meanings.

For example, does "As a skilled programmer, this language is in simple English," mean that the language in question written in simple English? Or does it instead imply that it appears as simple English in the eyes of a skilled programmer?

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Thanks for the helpful info. I tried to fix your error (“minimum on”) but this infuriating software wouldn’t allow the one-character change. –  Dave Briccetti Sep 24 '13 at 23:11
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The original sentence implies that the language itself is a computer programmer, a scary idea when you think about it.

I'd suggest: "As a programmer, it's obvious (to me) that the language is crap."


As a programmer, the crappiness of the language is obvious (to me)."


"The crappiness of the language is obvious to this programmer."

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How do you come up with the term obvious here. It's not obvious. This is only an expression of a person's opinion. –  itsols Sep 21 '13 at 3:40
Ummm... gosh, three times no... your first two alternatives are newly minted dangling modifiers, and the third example is flipped around into clumsy indirectness. E for effort, though. –  John M. Landsberg Sep 21 '13 at 17:41
To expand on what John says, if you are scared by the thought that the programmer is a language, you will be terrified to death after learning that the programmer is crappiness. Which is precisely what you state in your second example. Even worse, in your first sentence, it is the "it" that is the programmer. Not only is that über-scary, but you're actually infringing on Stephen King's copyright. –  RegDwigнt Sep 23 '13 at 23:02
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