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I posted the following question in Linguistics Stack Exchange, but since I'm asking about English grammar, I'm thinking that this is a better forum for it. The question:

The introductory non-finite clauses below (in bold)

Speeding down the road, Peter ran a red light.

Discouraged by his losing record, the boxer quit boxing

what, if anything, do they modify?

Do they modify the subject of each sentence ("Peter," "the boxer"), the main verb ("ran," "quit"), or the entire main clause ("Peter ran a red light," "the boxer quit boxing)?

How do grammarians/linguists analyze such introductory non-finite clauses? And if they are not "modifiers," what's the syntactic function of such non-finite clauses?

Thanks in advance

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    They don't modify anything, but act as supplements -- set apart from the rest of the clause in writing by punctuation and by a slight pause in speech. Supplements have 'semantic anchors' that they refer to, which can be clauses or most kinds of phrases. In your example, the anchors are "Peter" and "the boxer". – BillJ Jun 1 '18 at 16:17
  • In both sentences, the first part is dependent clause that modifies the main clause. More specifically, they are adverb clauses that modify the verbs in the main clauses. In the first sentence, (when / while) speeding down the road modifies ran, and in the second sentence, (because he was) discouraged by his losing record modifies quit. (btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/…) – Jason Bassford Jun 1 '18 at 18:27
  • The clauses don't modify the verbs -- they have "Peter" and "the boxer" as semantic anchors: It was Peter who was speeding and the boxer who was discouraged. It's a crucial property of supplements that they are neither constituents in their own right nor part of larger ones. – BillJ Jun 1 '18 at 18:31
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To the introductory non-finite participial clauses

  • Speeding down the road, Peter ran a red light.

  • Discouraged by his losing record, the boxer quit boxing.

let's add an infinitive, the other type of non-finite clause

  • To qualify for the trophy, the boxer had to win five events.

You can normally think of any subordinate clause as "modifying" the clause one cycle above it, for all the good it will do; this is especially true of adverbial clauses -- and all of these are adverbial in function. But in general, "modification" is not a big deal with medium-sized constituents like these.

They're up there at the front of the sentence to lead the addressee's attention to the circumstances
surrounding the main clause that they appear before. Where they come from is hard to say,
but it's not hard to find possible exponents with words missing from Conversational Deletion.

Viz,

  • (While he was) speeding down the road, Peter ran a red light.
  • (Because he was) discouraged by his losing record, the boxer quit boxing.
  • (In order)(for him) to qualify for the trophy, the boxer had to win five events.

These are very common constructions, even more common in non-fronted positions.
Since they usually lack overt subjects, significant referential ambiguity is possible:

  • &Sitting on the fence, Aunt Tillie saw three cats.

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