I am reading this The Elements of Style book by Strunk and White, I am confused about rule number 11.

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject

There are several examples given, I understood all except this one:

  • On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station. (Wrong)
  • When he arrived (or, On his arrival) in Chicago, his friends met him at the station. (Correct) (according to here: http://www.cs.vu.nl/~jms/doc/elos.pdf)
  • On arriving in Chicago, he was met at the station by his friends (According to the fourth edition of the book)

For me the third one seems correct, but I am confused about the second sentence. Do you think it is correct?

  • 4
    None of the three is ungrammatical, but the first is unclear. What, exactly, do you think is wrong with the second? My advice is to ditch Strunk and White and find something better. Here’s why: chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497 – Barrie England Dec 27 '13 at 9:29
  • @BarrieEngland thanks for the interesting article. I think I agree mostly to the article (especially for many years I never understood why using passive voice is bad), but I was not able to find a more highly appreciated book than that. Any suggestion is welcome (especially, a book tailored for non-native speakers) I think the second sentence is wrong, because of the rule. The subject in the second sentence is "his friends", so it must have been in passive, making "him" subject (as in the third sentence). – Emmet B Dec 27 '13 at 9:46
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    You'd think Strunk and White could at least have bowed to the conventional wisdom that a 'participal phrase / clause' always starts with the -ing form (not 'on' or 'when'). Which makes their 'rule' irrelevant here. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 27 '13 at 11:32
  • 1
    I recommend 'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage' and 'Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage' and, specifically for non-native speakers, 'An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage' by Leech and others. Less well-known, but also very helpful, is Peter Harvey’s ‘A Guide to English Language Usage for Non-Native Speakers’ lavengrobooks.com/index.htm. – Barrie England Dec 27 '13 at 15:13
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    Where is its place? How do you replace a crock? With another crock? If you're interested in learning about the English language, read David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedias (of Language, and of the English language). Until you unlearn all the stuff you learned in school and learn what language is really like, you won't be able to understand English grammar. – John Lawler Dec 27 '13 at 17:22
up vote 3 down vote accepted

There is nothing ungrammatical about the second sentence. More specifically, there is no participial phrase in the second sentence: there is a subordinate clause followed by a main clause.

In the subordinate clause, “When he arrived”, ‘he’ is very clearly the subject; in the main clause, “his friends met him at the station”, the subject is equally clearly ‘his friends’. This is quite straightforward.

If you use “On his arrival” or “Upon his arrival” instead, there is no subordinate clause at all: there is simply a noun phrase, ‘his arrival’ (in itself just a noun modified by a possessive determiner), which is governed by a preposition, ‘on’. There is no subject or verb in this at all, and no clause.

Using a participial phrase, you do have a clause: ‘arriving’ here still carries enough ‘verbness’ to be considered the verb in a clause (if it were a transitive verb, it would still have been able to accept objects, for example)—but the subject has been left out. When this is the case, the subject will most commonly be automatically filled in by the listener with the subject in the following clause—but, despite Strunk and White’s claims, this is not universal. Some cases end up being ambiguous, and some end up with another constituent taking up the subject slot in the gerund phrase.

“On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station” is ambiguous. The most likely meaning is of course that ‘he’ arrived in Chicago, and his friends met him at the station when he did so. If you go by Strunk and White, though, this meaning is not possible, and the only possible meaning is that the friends met him at the station when they arrived in Chicago; not when he arrived there. In reality, the sentence is ambiguous and would benefit from being worded differently if context did not make it clear which interpretation is true.

Many cases where it is obvious that the subject in the participial phrase is supposed to be something different from the subject in the main clause end up sounding awkward or ill-formed and would benefit from recasting:

Wearing a dark blue satin dress and with her hair loosely draped over her shoulders, he thought her as beautiful as any girl he’d ever seen.

– would be better as:

Wearing a dark blue satin dress and with her hair loosely draped over her shoulders, she was as beautiful to him as any girl he’d ever seen.

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