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Starting in March, people will also finally be able to buy the Exodus phone with cash and not just cryptocurrency.

Is 'starting' here a participle form of a verb or a preposition?

If it's a participle, how come it's not a dangling participle?

EDIT

By 'dangling participle' I mean: The test is whether the omitted subject of the participle is the same as the subject of the matrix clause. If it is not, it's a dangling participle. There are some exceptions, but you get the picture.

In the above example, if the omitted subject of Starting is the same as people, it's not a dangling participle.

I think the omitted subject of Starting is not people, so theoretically this is a dangling participle. But it is a well-formed construction. Hence the question.

I think there are two ways to resolve this dilemma:
(1) to show that Starting in March is a prepositional phrase; or
(2) to show that an exception applies so 'dangling' doesn't matter.

  • At least tell me why you're voting it down just so I can improve my question, will you? – JK2 Mar 3 at 7:00
  • Let me fix that for you, +1. Some swr junkie with a distaste for a proper linguistics question, no doubt. – Araucaria Mar 3 at 20:03
  • @Araucaria Thanks for viewing it as a proper question :) – JK2 Mar 4 at 0:48
  • The question is roughly sociolinguistic: how many speakers in the community parse starting as a preposition, and how many still parse it as a participle? It's gonna be divided; that's why it's a question. With because there's no problem; it's slid from being a predicate NP to a conjunction and now a preposition. That's one way to go; starting or beginning are on a somewhat different slippery slope. If you require a sharp dividing line, you're out of luck. Like isoglosses, category boundaries are fuzzy and don't all run in the same direction. – John Lawler Mar 11 at 17:29
  • @JohnLawler Thanks for the comment. I can see where you're coming from. But I think different grammars have decided how to treat the 'starting', and I want to know the answer(s) in at least some modern grammar(s). – JK2 Mar 12 at 1:36
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+50

I have a found a paper that suggests that the development of participles to prepositions is somehow a "gradual" process of grammaticalization: "Prepositionalities of Deverbal Prepositions: Differences in Degree of Grammaticalization", by Tomoaki Hayashi, Papers in Linguistic Science, No. 21 (2015), pp. 129-151. It discusses many words, so it doesn't have much in-depth discussion of starting, but it does mention starting and provides some data that is supposed to indicate that it has progressed substantially along this path.

I'm not completely convinced by the data (or by the theoretical claim that the participle/preposition distinction is gradual rather than discrete), but I think that this paper is relevant to your question and brings up some useful candidates for verb vs. preposition tests. To me, a test involving cleft constructions seemed like the most convincing piece of evidence* to support classifying "starting" as a preposition in sentences like the one in your post.

*Aside from the argument that you already mentioned about "starting" not having "people" as its implied subject. Hayashi brings that up early on in the paper, citing a sentence from Hopper (1991: 31), who uses this as an argument for considering considering to be a preposition in the following sentence: "(4) Considering its narrow beam, the boat is remarkably sea-worthy" (Hayashi p. 131).

Cleft constructions seem to indicate that "starting" can head a PP

In section 3.1, Hiyashi says that cleft constructions can be used to distinguish PPs from verb, adjective and adverb phrases. Supposedly, PPs can be emphasized in cleft sentences, but VPs, APs and AdvPs cannot. Hiyashi gives the following as examples of unacceptable sentences, citing Emonds 1976: 133:

(16) a. *It was too carefully that she spoke. (AdvP)
b. *It’s very unhappy that Bill is. (AP)
c. *It is blow up some buildings that you should. (VP)

Hiyashi used the following sentence to test the acceptability of starting in a cleft structure:

(B34) It will be starting today that Miss Carey will be in charge of the Sales Department.

(Appendix)

In Table 2, Hiyashi categorizes starting as having a "prepositionality" score of 3.5 (where the maximum would be 5.0). This number was derived by averaging the acceptability scores given by "eight English native speakers: four American English speakers, two Australian English speakers, one British English speaker, and one Canadian English speaker" (p. 138).

I do personally find these two examples fairly acceptable (if I were to score them out of 5, I might give them somewhere around a 4). I found similar examples from a Google search of the sequence "it’s starting today that":

  • Their first album will come out at the end of the year, but it’s starting today that you can expect to be completely gobsmacked.

    (DERBY MOTORETA’S BURRITO KACHIMBA (ES), Primavera Club website)

  • They set up two new counters by the Broadway entrance to deal customers today, as you know it's starting today that customers may buy their fragrance with the passes to meet Mariah, fans started to wait in line in the afternoon and camped outside to be sure they can buy their package.

    ("Macy's last night", October 2007 - Heroes of Mariah)

My main concern with this test is that I'm not sure that it's actually completely unacceptable to use a verbal participle in a cleft construction like this.

"Starting" seems to be modified more freely by adverbs as a verb than as a preposition

In section 2.3, Hiyashi says that one possible criterion for distinguishing verbs from prepositions is the acceptability of adverbs with the word (citing Hayashi 2014). Hiyashi says "when a verb becomes grammaticalized into a deverbal preposition, it tends to become less acceptable in collocation with adverbs" (p. 134). Hiyashi's 2014 informant (a native speaker of of British English) judged it unacceptable to modify starting with the adverb "typically" in contexts where it could be analyzed as a preposition (Table 1 and (14), p. 136).

I'm not sure about this judgement or its relevance to the question of starting's part of speech. "Typically" doesn't work in your sentence ("((*Typically) Starting in March, people will also finally be able to buy the Exodus phone with cash and not just cryptocurrency") but I think that it would be excluded for semantic reasons even if "starting" were a verb: you wouldn't use "typically" with a verb that is talking about a specific one-time event. Another adverb that I've seen mentioned in other sources as a likely modifier of verbs is "carefully", but again, the semantics don't seem very compatible with "starting". I feel like it would be difficult to get conclusive results with tests based on -ly adverbs.

"Right"

I think it's well known that being able to be modified by "right" is a characteristic feature of prepositions. "Right starting" sounds completely wrong to me, so when I first read your question, I didn't think that this test could be used to show that "starting" has characteristics of a preposition. However, Hiyashi reports an average acceptability score of 2.5 (out of 5.0) for starting preceded by right in the following sentence (Table 3, p. 140).

(C34) Right starting today Miss Carey will be in charge of the Sales Department.

(Appendix)

I'm less than completely convinced by this data (even if some speakers will acccept this, I still find it a bit hard to believe that a native English speaker would ever produce "right starting"), but it's evidence nevertheless.

It seems that some deverbal prepositions do not take ordinary NPs as complements

Like TaliesinMerlin, I thought that the complementation pattern of starting seemed unsual for a preposition. It takes a PP, or an NP that distributes like a PP (e.g. "starting yesterday"), but it doesn't seem like it can take any regular NP as a complement ("starting *(from) my admission to the school").

However, Araucaria pointed out in a comment that similar patterns of complementation exist for other words that CGEL classifies as prepositions. And Fukuda (2017) "On the Historical Development of During" mentions some similar deverbal prepositions: according (to), owing (to) and pertaining (to) (p. 124, (5)).

"New members of ‘closed classes’ in English", by Brett Reynolds and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2014?), includes starting in a list of words that "might reasonably" be categorized as de-participial prepositions (§3.1), and makes the following note on what it can take as a complement:

  1. Prepositions beginning and starting typically take an in-phrase complement, but there are also examples with a with phrase. In fact, a variety of temporal expressions should be possible complements: several years ago, last year, only quite recently, and so on
  • Thanks for unearthing Hayashi, an interesting read. – JK2 Mar 15 at 4:41
  • Thanks for editing to include that paper by Brett Reynolds and Geoffrey K. Pullum. – JK2 Mar 17 at 2:02
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Starting is a present participle of the verb to start, formed by adding -ing. It is not a preposition. For instance, a preposition almost always takes a noun as an object, whereas starting can substitute an adverb (modifying the verb form) to attain a similar sense:

Starting soon, people will also finally be able to buy the Exodus phone with cash and not just cryptocurrency.

Starting now ...

Starting immediately ...

but not

x In now

x During soon

x With immediately

Like a preposition a participle can have objects and, alone or as a phrase, connect to verbs, nouns, and entire sentences.

"Starting in March" is a free adjunct that describes the temporal aspect of the entire sentence: the event in the sentence will be possible at that time.

The participial phrase could be interpreted as a dangling modifier. In this interpretation, which has many fans among traditional grammarians and givers of writing advice, the participle phrase needs to be closely followed by the subject of the sentence or another unambiguous correspondent. This diagnosis usually results from a stylistic issue: the sentence is harder to understand when the subject-relation of the prepositional phrase is unclear.

According to this rule, we'd need to determine whether "people" is the subject of "starting in March." The verb provides difficulties that the verbs in many example sentences for dangling participles do not: "starting" (in the sense of "to begin," Oxford English Dictionary entry II and following) isn't semantically an action in the same vein as "looking" or "walking." While people can start, "starting" isn't limited to a personal action. Is it people or the ability to buy a phone that is starting in March in this sentence? Both? It would be easy to say that, due to this ambiguity, the modifier is dangling, or that because a plausible subject is present the modifier is not dangling.

However, the assessment of a dangling modifier presumes that all participles must have a nearby subject. I think that assumption neglects a common use of present participles: they function as an adverbial modifying the entire sentence. In this construction, it's not any person or subject being modified. Rather, the start of the sentence indicates the time at which the remainder of the sentence would be true. Standing before the sentence but relating to the entire sentence, these constructions have been called unrelated free adjuncts, as Bernd Kortmann describes them in his 2013 book Free Adjuncts and Absolutes in English. They are "unrelated" in the sense that they don't correspond to any one word or phrase but rather to the sentence itself. Meanwhile, Seung Ah-Lee explains that free adjuncts work even without conforming to the subject-identity rule:

As mentioned in footnote 15, the identity between the understood subject of the free adjunct and the subject of its matrix clause represents the default case. There are, however, free adjuncts that do not conform to the subject- identity rule, as in (21)-(22).

(21) (a) Being Christmas, the government offices were closed.

(b) When dining in the restaurant, a jacket and tie are required.

(c) Putting it mildly, you have caused us some inconvenience. (Quirk et al. 1985: 1122)

(22) Having said that, it must be admitted that the new plan also has advantages. (Pullum & Huddleston 2002: 6iI)

These are traditionally called 'unattached', 'unrelated', 'pendant', or 'dangling' participle (Quirk et al. 1985: 1123).

The author noting that they're called "dangling" isn't an assessment that they're incorrect. On the contrary, the examples show grammatically well-formed constructions.

These participle phrases define the rhetorical attitude of the speaker, the time at which the sentence is taking place, or some other information. In this sense they act like conjunctions or adverbs without needing to connect to a single nearby subject. Descriptive grammarians and linguists are more likely to accept the validity of "sentence adverbs" and hence participle phrases serving as sentence adverbials.

  • I assumed that starting being a participle was obvious - no dictionaries catalogue it as a preposition. So I went back and figured out another reason to think of it as a participle. – TaliesinMerlin Mar 14 at 20:05
  • 1
    I also wondered whether the fact that "starting" doesn't take an NP complement might be enough to disqualify it as a preposition. But Araucaria pointed out in a comment that there are other prepositions that don't take NP complements, but only PP complements: e.g. next (most people say next to NP and not *next NP). – sumelic Mar 14 at 20:22
  • I think your last paragraph is right on. Is the last paragraph based on Seung Ah-Lee or your own opinion? BTW, do you happen to know where I can get my hands on a copy of Seung Ah-Lee, of which you've shown an excerpt? – JK2 Mar 15 at 4:48
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Assume that you also have a day: Starting March 6, people ...

Now transition to 1st: Starting March 1st, people ...

So, "in" is out : Starting March (implicitly 1st), people ...

It really is "from March 1st" (or 6th) not "from some unknown day in March". There is a definite (known) day - "starting" emphasizes that date. What actually starts is secondary.

Compare: Starting in March, he hopes to travel around the world in 65 days.

Now it is an unknown day - "starting" emphasizes the beginning of a journey (the exact date is secondary) and you can't remove "in" anymore. So you could call it "virtually dangling".

  • 2
    So do you think it's not a preposition but a participle? If it's a "dangling" participle, how come it's well formed? (I don't know what you mean by "virtually dangling", though) – JK2 Mar 14 at 2:02
  • Virtually means - it behaves as if it is X although formally/narrowly it might not be. It "skips" nearby word and applies to what comes after it - if the context is "favorable". You could kind of "reduce" this to the prior mention of fuzzy boundaries but in my mind it's more about ambiguity and context sensitivity. Interpretation/reading/meaning depends on whether you assume (or have in reality) a precise date and whether the second part is a thing that's more like an event (can by it from date D) or a process (journey). – ZXX Mar 15 at 11:18
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"Starting in March" is participial form of the verb. It is being used as a verb phrase to describe WHEN it is possible to buy the phone.

This is an example of an adverbial phrase because it modifies the verb buy.

This is NOT a dangling participle because "Starting in March" is NOT an adjectival phrase, but rather an adverbial one describing "buy."

  • 1
    Are you saying that Starting is a dangling participle? If so, how come it's well formed? – JK2 Mar 14 at 2:04
  • Dangling participles are phrases that modify nouns. This modifies a verb, so it is NOT a Dangling participle and is well-formed. softschools.com/examples/grammar/dangling_participles_examples/… – Karlomanio Mar 14 at 14:20
  • If Starting is a participle, what's the omitted subject? If the omitted subject is not the subject of the matrix clause (people in this example), isn't it a dangling participle? – JK2 Mar 14 at 15:05
  • There is no omitted subject in this case- an omitted subject would require the "Starting in March" to describe a noun and it does not. No, it is NOT a dangling participle – Karlomanio Mar 14 at 15:30

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