"The expression constantly changes while watching it".

We are talking about a picture here and this sentence is supposed to mean "while smb. is watching it", "it" refers to the expression. Is it a dangling modifier? Answers from philologists (or just native speakers who are really good in English) will be much appreciated as our professor and I are having an argument over this sentence. Thank you for your help in advance!

  • How do you know it is a picture? When I read this sentence I can't understand at all. – Grizzly Dec 10 '15 at 4:01
  • This is a single sentence from a text about Mona Lisa, it's her facial expression we are talking about. It doesn't really matter here anyway, I just wanted to clarify. – Polina Inozemtseva Dec 10 '15 at 5:01

Yes, it dangles. When you're using when or while with just a participle (no subject or finite verb), as in your while watching it, the omitted subject should be the same as that of the main clause if you want to avoid dangling.

In this case, that subject of the main clause is the expression. But *the expression constantly changes while the expression is watching it doesn't work, as you see. In reality, the omitted subject is somebody, so its omission results in a dangling participle.

In somewhat less formal English, you could use a dangling modifier without eliciting cries of anguish from most readers, but only under certain circumstances. I would say it is sometimes possible with verbs like using or considering, but in my opinion it sounds wrong in your example. Or perhaps the fact that it comes after the main clause makes it more glaring.

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  • Thank you very much! Sounds like I was right after all. ^^ – Polina Inozemtseva Dec 10 '15 at 5:03
  • Can I also add that the sentence is odd on a number of levels, but I concede it might be better in the full context. But first, even though it is the Mona Lisa, and even though it's famous for its enigmatic half-smile, I still think you look at at the painting (and expression), rather than watch it. And secondly, who is making the claim that the expression "constantly changes"? Or is this just a reassertion of its reputation? – Cargill Dec 10 '15 at 8:49

If you wanted to lose the dangle, you could say ‘the expression constantly changes while watching’. You don’t need the ‘it’.

Although, I think the real problem is, that it says ‘the expression’ which is rather ambiguous - is it the expression of the subject of the painting, or of the viewer?

Whereas, if it said ‘her expression’ we would know who is who, and what is what, in the sentence.

‘Her expression constantly changes while watching it’. Would be pretty clear - in the context of already knowing the sentence is about ‘the Mona Lisa’.

Or a possibly better form might be:

‘The Mona Lisa - her expression constantly appears to change under the gaze of the viewer’.

And yes - as Cargill commented - you don’t ‘watch’ a painting - you view it or look at it - though, if you were trying to catch a moving expression, then I suppose you might be ‘watching’ - which means ‘observing closely, to see what happens next’.

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