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My case here is that I was writing something for school, and my teacher explained an error which I really can't see.

She referred to articles about "dangling participles", which was previously unknown to me. I find it hard to relate the examples I've found about it to my situation.

So this is a text I've written and the bold part is where the problem arises: (You could read only the bold part if you please)

Wandering, and lost in his thoughts, there is a deep despair occupying the mind of this man. He is barely aware of his surroundings, except for those few moments when the loud blissful voices break through the protective barriers, developed by his immense sadness and grave frustration, into his mind. ”How can they all possibly be so happy?” he thinks to himself. Staring blindly, with his head low, as he walks in a slow pace, whispering ”Mary, Mary, my Mary,” over and over again. Yesterday was her funeral. She had passed away from a severe type of cancer, at a relatively young age. It was his wife. They had been together since high school and were greatly attached to each other. Having spent nearly half his life by her side, we cannot but imagine his grief. Indeed, he could hardly picture a life without her. So, alone he roams in the midst of all the seemingly incessant cheering and noises, drowned by his sorrow.

Her comments on that part was:

we is slightly out of place here – see my comment below

These few sentences are about him and his emotions, so ‘we’ seems out of place. If the sentence starts: ‘Having spent nearly half his life by her side’, the reader expects it to continue: ‘he’. After all we have not spent half our lives by her side.

Is she right? If so, could anyone try to explain why?

  • 1
    Yes, she is. This is the classic example showing the problem of misplaced modifiers: I bought a piano for my cousin with carved ebony legs. You need to move the modifier right next to what it is modifying: I bought a piano with carved ebony legs for my cousin. With 'Having spent nearly half his life by her side, we cannot but imagine his grief,' there is no clarifying reshuffle possible. You might write 'Having spent nearly half his life by her side, he must be experiencing grief we cannot imagine.' – Edwin Ashworth Jan 29 '14 at 22:35
  • possible duplicate of Dangling Participial Phrase – FumbleFingers Jan 29 '14 at 22:50
  • Also, Cannot but imagine may not be what you mean; perhaps cannot imagine, the precise opposite? – TimLymington Jan 29 '14 at 22:53
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    @TimLymington: I would say cannot but imagine is correct as the equivalent of I can only imagine, i.e. I cannot experience it myself. – Cerberus Jan 29 '14 at 23:11
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    In addition to the dangling participles pointed out by your teacher and by WS2, there's the rather strange wording "It was his wife." Why not "She was his wife"? After all, you used "her" and "she" in the two preceding sentences; why demote her to "it"? – Andreas Blass Nov 29 '16 at 5:13
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The problem is that the modifier clause ("Having spent nearly half his life...") refers to one party (the man), while the subject of the sentence is a different party ("we"). To eliminate the dangling modifier, we could rewrite the sentence as:

We cannot but imagine the grief that he, having spent nearly half his life by her side, must have experienced.

...so that the modifier clause properly refers to the man rather than to us. But beware of revisions like:

Having spent nearly half his life by her side, his grief can be readily imagined.

...which commits the same sin: now his grief is the subject of the sentence, and his grief didn't spend half its life by her side, he did.

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Having spent nearly half his life by her side, we cannot but imagine his grief.

The participle having does not have a noun nearby that it modifies. So there is no noun nearby that "has spent". In that case, this means the participle should modify the subject of the (main) clause. In your sentence, the subject is we. So then it would mean, "we have spent". But that is clearly not the intended meaning, because it is not we who have spent nearly half his life by her side.

So then what does the participle modify here? Nothing: it is dangling in the air.

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I've just discovered this wonderful piece by G Pullum in LanguageLog [slightly reformatted]:

Does it really matter if it dangles?

November 20, 2010 @ 2:26 pm ·

Filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under ambiguity, Prescriptivist poppycock, Syntax, Writing

In his short but cutting review of Simon Heffer's Strictly English, Steven Poole remarks that the book "condemns hanging participles yet perpetrates a monster (on p165, too tedious to quote here)." What was this tedious monster, I feel sure you Language Log readers are asking? The sentence in question is the second one in this quotation (from the beginning of a section; I underline the relevant phrase):

Partridge has a long entry in Usage and Abusage on the word got – he could as easily have made the entry about the word get – but, if anything, this unusually strict grammarian lets the promiscuous and often thoughtless use of this term off lightly.

Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.

The "hanging participle" (it is more common to say "dangling participle" or "dangling modifier", as I will do here) is the gerund-participial clause beginning with detracting, i.e. this clause:

detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times

It has no subject, and as one casts about for some noun phrase that might be understood as its subject, one fails to come up with anything. But does that matter?

Nothing in the preceding sentence suggests a candidate logical subject; and the main clause subject of the sentence (which follows it) is the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts, which surely cannot be the right choice. That is, he cannot surely mean this:

??Without the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.

What he means is instead surely something like this:

Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, I would nonetheless like to point out that the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.

The understood subject of detracting is first person singular: it is Heffer who might detract from Fowler's point about Anglo-Saxon words such as get being better than French or Latin words like obtain or requisition, and he wants to forestall any such detraction but nonetheless wishes to say that he thinks Partridge didn't come down hard enough on the over-use of the versatile verb get.

Heffer has certainly written a classic dangling modifier, so we know he cannot follow his own rules. And if the dangling modifier is a really bad writing fault, he is guilty of bad writing. Certainly he himself insists on its badness. He warns against this sin 64 pages earlier, with a standard invented example taken from a grammar book of about a hundred years ago (almost all his sources are close to a century old; here he is citing C. T. Onions): After fighting the flames for several hours the ship was abandoned. This is wrong, Heffer says, because it was not the ship that fought the flames.

What he seems to be demanding is that if a subjectless gerund-participial clause is used as preposed adjunct, or as here, is the complement of a preposition (after) in a preposition phrase used as a preposed adjunct, the semantically understood subject of the gerund-participle must be whatever is the referent of the subject of the matrix clause (here, the ship).

He gives several other examples that he collected himself. And incidentally, in doing so he shows again that he is an utter incompetent at grammar, because he gives this as an example:

The day before he died, David Cameron and his wife played with their son.

This is an embarrassing slip. What he's objecting to is that the pronoun he could refer either to their son (the right choice), or to David Cameron (the wrong choice); there is risk of misunderstanding. But this is just an ambiguity of pronoun reference, and it has nothing to do with dangling participles at all. There are no participles at all in this sentence. Heffer cannot tell his participle from a hole in the ground.

But back to our main theme. Is it truly so terrible to have dangled a participle as he does in the example about detracting from Fowler's point?

The irony is that the answer is no: in the particular case at hand it does not matter much. There are many semi-conventionalized participial adjuncts (or adjuncts containing subjectless participial clauses as complements) that seem just fine for any native speaker to interpret, and are happily used by even expert and careful writers:

Speaking of sales, what do the third quarter figures look like?

Moving right along, this slide shows the third quarter figures.

Seeing as you're here, there must be some ulterior motive for the visit.

Without detracting from Fowler's point, aren't some Anglo-Saxon verbs overused?

There is nothing particularly wrong with these. They don't make the reader do a double-take, or half-seduce the reader for a moment into some crazy interpretation. They work almost as if the participles were prepositions, and indeed, you can very roughly paraphrase all of them with preposition phrases:

As regards sales, what do the third quarter figures look like?

In order to move right along, let's look at the third quarter figures.

In view of the fact that you're here, there must be some ulterior motive for the visit.

Without prejudice to Fowler's point, what exactly is a relative clause?

Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that dangling participles are always OK, or that Heffer is wrong about everything, or that Heffer writes badly. It is all a little bit more subtle than that.

  • Some dangling participles are definitely cases of bad writing. After fighting the flames for several hours the ship was abandoned is obscure and puzzling about who fought the flames; and some examples are ludicrously misunderstandable, like the classic invented example Trembling with fear, the clock suddenly struck midnight (see this post and many other Language Log posts on the same topic).

  • It would be perfectly reasonable for a writing guide to recommend that such sentences should be avoided. The problem with Heffer is that he doesn't know how to do that — he can't characterize or identify what he's trying to warn against. He botches his job, and states an over-general rule that he cannot even obey himself (despite all the help that Random House copy editors could provide).

  • Although Heffer does violate his own rule, the sentence he writes is a good illustration of why that rule is too broadly and strictly stated. He wrote a sentence that falls within the small range of semi-conventionlized cases that don't sound all that bad to experienced users of English. So under his own framing of the rule, he is guilty; but through his incompetence he has actually been unfair to himself.

This usage stuff is not straightforward and easy. If ever someone tells you that the rules of English grammar are simple and logical and you should just learn them and obey them, walk away, because you're getting advice from a fool.

  • Thanks for adding the links, legoscia. I should certainly have included the primary one. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 18 at 9:08
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"We" haven't 'spent half his life by her side'. So the clause is referring to nothing in particular.

To make it more apparent what the problem is...change it to

Having spent nearly half his life by her side, I took the bus to work today.

or

Having spent nearly half his life by her side, the Dodgers beat the Phillies 3-1.

  • But it's not really the same. You change the subject completely while my "we" statement still relates to the previous. – Colandus Jan 29 '14 at 23:00
  • But it doesn't, as the participle does not refer to "we" at all. It only weakly refers to his grief. And his grief did not spend half his life by her side. He did. And He is nowhere in the sentence! – Oldcat Jan 29 '14 at 23:02
  • Isn't "his" enough? – Colandus Jan 29 '14 at 23:05
  • It isn't the subject, so no, it isn't enough. – Oldcat Jan 29 '14 at 23:09
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    @Colandus, think about it: what part of “Having spent almost half his life by her side” does ‘we’ refer to? There is nothing in that that in any way relates to ‘us’, any more than it relates to the Dodgers. That's why it's dangling. We are able to guess the intended meaning because that's how the human mind works—but the dangliness of the modifier forces us to use more energy and effort than should be necessary in order to do so. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 30 '14 at 0:03
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First let me congratulate you on your vocabulary and creativity.

However, as your teacher has pointed out there are a couple of 'dangling participles'. Apart from the one you mention, there is also one in the opening sentence.

'Wandering and lost in his thoughts' is a participle phrase which is modifying the wrong noun. To fix this you need to say something like:

'Wandering and lost in his thoughts, the man was overwhelmed by a deep despair occupying his mind'.

Equally 'Having spent nearly half his life by her side' does not modify anything in the remainder of the sentence. We all know what you mean but it is not strictly grammatically correct.

This link on dangling participles may help: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/dangling-participles?page=1

  • Yes that is the same link as my teacher referred me to. It's kind of hard to grasp what you guys are saying. I want to really get this into my skull! – Colandus Jan 29 '14 at 23:03
  • @Colandus What is it about the article at the link which you don't understand? – WS2 Jan 29 '14 at 23:34
  • I understand the examples etc but I can't relate it to my situation. Their example: "Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.". Yes, I understand that in this case the birds are hiking the trail. But in mine it's clear who does what. – Colandus Jan 29 '14 at 23:39
  • @Colandus Yes, As I said, we all know what you mean. But when you said 'Having spent half his life by her side, we......'. Well we haven't spent half our lives by her side. It has to be clear from the word order etc which noun, or pronoun, the participle phrase is qualifying. – WS2 Jan 29 '14 at 23:48
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In examining the entire text, I see another problem. Who is the "We" referring to in this sentence? The author and the reader? It is a pronoun without a reference - and it can't really get one as this passage seems to be told in third person.

Every other sentence uses He as the subject. Only this one introduces a new character 'We' that just doesn't fit, and causes a dangling participle. Perhaps this is why Cloandus can't see it, he's thinking that the man is what this sentence is about just like all the others.

  • Hmm... It's making more sense now, but I'm still not there yet! – Colandus Jan 30 '14 at 10:10
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In English, the participle phrase needs to be tied as directly as possible to the subject of the sentence, which is usually done by placing the phrase and the sentence's subject adjacent to one another in some way. English is a syntactic language. Where a word or phrase comes in the sentence affects its meaning. If you are not mindful of this, you get such ambiguities as "The smoke was seen by the man going up the chimney." Anyone reading for meaning is going to go "Wait, what?" after they read that sentence, and will have to go back and disentangle the syntax.

Think of a participle phrase as a balloon on a very short string. Whatever or whoever that participle phrase is about is the owner of that balloon, and should hold its string. In your sentence,

"Having spent nearly half his life by her side, we cannot but imagine his grief."

The participle phrase balloon "Having spent nearly half his life by her side" belongs to the same person who owns the grief. The problem is, "he," the owner of the grief, is not the subject of the sentence. The solution here is to recast the sentence to make the owner of the balloon the subject of the sentence. Otherwise the balloon just floats above the sentence with its string dangling because it doesn't have an owner to claim it.

I have another quibble with your sentence, however, which is the construction "cannot but." In the negative (cannot) it means "We have no other choice. That's it." I don't think what you mean here is "we have no other choice except to imagine. That's our only option." I think what you mean here is, "We are not able to know what he feels; the best we can do is imagine what we would feel if we were in his situation," in which case "can but" is what you mean. For example:

"He won't reply to my text messages or answer my phone calls. He walked right by me without speaking. I cannot but think I've offended him somehow."

"I've decided to learn French. I don't know if I'll succeed. I can but try."

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