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There is one particularly commonly used language construct that I find logically incorrect. However, as a non-native English speaker, I can't decide authoritatively on whether the usage is actually wrong.

Consider the following sentence:

As a web developer, I often help my friends with their websites when asked.

It is clear that I am a web developer and that I, when asked for help by my friends, do the favor for them.

Compare it with the following (disregard the slight difference in meaning — what is relevant is the change of subject):

As a web developer, my friends often ask me for help with their websites.

What does it mean now? I think it means that my friends, who are a web developer (!), often ask me for help. However, in informal writing, this usage is so common that it might actually happen to be correct! Perhaps in my head I'm automatically trying to translate the sentence into my native language, in which it sounds somewhat more ridiculous (it might also be the case that the ridiculousness arises merely from the fact that I am more used to the language I speak every day).

What is your view on this matter? I'd like to hear the opinion of a native speaker or someone who is experienced enough to provide a definitive answer.

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Generally speaking, a dependent clause needs to be as close as possible to the word or phrase that it modifies. The word as used in this manner introduces a clause that modifies the subject of the sentence.

In the first example, which is correct, the phrase as a web developer applies to the immediately adjacent subject of the sentence, I. This makes sense and is grammatically correct.

The second example is ambiguous and grammatically incorrect. The position of the clause as a Web developer suggests that it modifies the subject, but there is a mismatch in number: the clause is singular, but the subject is plural.

Your reader can assume you mean to modify either the subject or the predicate or both, but this leads to ambiguity. Here it might not matter so much: the I of the sentence is probably a Web developer or he wouldn't be asked, and the friends are probably Web developers too or they wouldn't be asking.

But sometimes it matters a great deal. Who's killing whom in this example?

As a mass murderer, his friends sought to execute him.

But good grammar makes another important difference: it rests more musically on the mind's inner ear, which makes for good writing as opposed to mediocre writing in which we know what the writer meant, even if he didn't say it correctly. Or at least we think we know what he meant.

  • a participle clause/phrase would have a participle in it. The word "as" doesn't appear to introduce any participle at all and participle phrases/clauses begin w/a participle. – Dunnup Jul 23 '15 at 21:42
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Taken literally, the second sentence is nonsense, but there's no ambiguity and anyone knows what the sentence means.

Constructions like this are best avoided in formal writing, but in informal use, the meaning is perfectly clear, precisely because the literal meaning is nonsense. The only thing that the modifier can sensibly refer to is the object "me." That's why people say things like this all the time: it is an effective way to communicate.

(Another way of looking at it: "as a web developer" takes the place of "because I am a web developer," modifying the entire clause that follows, so it does not matter which part of the clause comes first.)

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As a web developer is prepositional phrase being used adjectively. Phrases like this should be as close to the noun it's modifying as possible. Most people will figure out "developer" is logically associated w/the only singular pronoun (me), but if you're looking to be grammatically correct, then the first sentence is on point.

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Usage guides have criticized dangling modifiers for generations, primarily because constructions that use dangling modifiers don't make sense when read literally as establishing a structural connection between the modifier and the nearest subject. Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, for example, addresses dangling modifiers in the last of its eleven "elementary rules of usage":

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

...

Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.

[Relevant faulty example:] Without a friend to counsel him, the temptation proved irresistible.

[Relevant correct example:] Without a friend to counsel him, he found the temptation irresistible.

Few people deny that the initial impulse of a listener or reader is to associate a dangling modifier with the nearest following subject. Instead, critics of critics of dangling modifiers argue that in the real world speakers and writers use dangling modifiers all the time, and that in all but a very few instances their hearers or readers readily figure out the meaning that they are trying to convey. From these facts, the countercritics conclude that critics of dangling modifiers have greatly overstated the danger to communication that dangling modifiers pose.

But the question of how quickly a hearer or reader can identify the intended subject of a modifier is separable from the question of whether, at some level, a formally illogical juxtaposition requires correction. And if we accept that getting the sense of the sentence right depends on associating the modifier with its intended subject, it seems reasonable to ask whether that task properly and primarily belongs to the speaker/writer or to the hearer/reader.

I think that putting the burden of establishing accurate associations on the speaker/writer makes far more sense than putting it on the hearer/reader, if only as a matter of efficiency. If the author of an e-mail message structurally associates a modifier with its intended subject, then the message's five or twenty or one thousand recipients don't have to spend a tenth of a second or a half a second or five seconds each doing the job for the author.

Also, to the extent that dangling modifiers multiply and combine with other logical flaws in a speaker's or writer's discourse, they can have the cumulative effect of wearying and needlessly alienating listeners or readers. It's a bit like reading a question or answer on EL&U that uses nonstandard spelling or sloppy formatting: as a reader, you can make sense of what the writer is trying to say and yet still resent the person's slapdash approach.

Viewed from this perspective—which I suppose you could characterize as the perspective of a critic of critics of critics of dangling modifiers—the wording

As a web developer, I often help my friends with their websites when asked.

is superior to the wording

As a web developer, my friends often ask me for help with their websites.

Maintaining structural consistency also establishes a clarity of style that may sometimes be quite useful, as when you are dealing with more-confusable potential subjects of an opening modifier. If you consistently structure your sentences so that opening modifiers modify the nearest following subject, your readers can confidently interpret the sense of the sentence

As web developers, our friends often ask us for help with their websites.

as being that "our friends" are "web developers." If you don't, the meaning is hopelessly ambiguous.

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