Here is an excerpt from chapter 8 of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. Morris quotes some of Roosevelt's writing and calls it ungrammatical. Can you explain what is ungrammatical about the passage?

Musing on the behavior of screech owls, he produced one extraordinary, if ungrammatical, image:

They come up to the house after dark, and are fond of sitting in the elk-antlers over the gable. When the moon is up, by changing one's position, the little owl appears in sharp outline against the bright disk, seated on his many-tined perch

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    Dangling modifier. Which, as the Wikipedia article is quick to point out, is only considered ungrammatical "in prescriptivist accounts of English". – RegDwigнt Dec 30 '13 at 23:19
  • Who said they could decide where the borderline is? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 30 '13 at 23:20
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    Unless I'm missing something, there is nothing ungrammatical. I think he is trying to pretend that by changing one's position has an implied subject of the little owl, and that it "means" something different from what it actually means. This is nonsense, and has always been nonsense, no matter how many pedagogues have insisted on it: it is neither ungrammatical, nor does it mean something different from what the authors intended. It is only people who insist that language should be able to be solved like a mathematical equation who believe otherwise. – Colin Fine Dec 30 '13 at 23:22
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    "The hanging [dangling] participle is generally condemned as ungrammatical, rather than as a mere error of style. But it has long been widely used, most famously by Shakespeare in Hamlet." (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 1994)[bolding mine] If this is true, descriptivists should go with the flow and concede that the dangling modifier is ungrammatical. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 30 '13 at 23:35
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    It seems to me that the expression "by changing one's position" is probably referring to the reader/person. That if a person there at the scene was to change their position, then that person would be able to see the little owl better (owl silhouette against the bright moon). – F.E. Dec 31 '13 at 2:06

Reading through the comments on your question, one could conclude that the word ungrammatical has a rather technical meaning. Perhaps it would be useful to ponder whether Roosevelt's statement is as clear as it could be, or could be improved. Consider the potentially confusing part of his statement: "by changing one's position, the little owl appears..." Although the reader can probably guess at what Roosevelt means, this kind of construct can be confusing in other contexts. For example, "by pulling out one's hairs, the little owl builds a nest." Interpreted in the same way that we interpreted Roosevelt's statement, this could, at least at first glance, suggest that a person pulling out his own hair can have some effect on the owl's nest-building endeavors.

Perhaps the question of whether the statement qualifies as ungrammatical is not as important as the question of whether the statement is as clear as it could be.

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    One might also ask whether the text would lose some of its more "poetic" overtones if it were to be expressed more conventionally. It's not part of a technical manual, nor is it text that needs to be understood by illiterates (or dumb software). Reducing already trivial reader effort is not a relevant aspiration for such prose. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '13 at 5:09

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