Re: Dangling Modifiers

Subject: Re: Dangling Modifiers
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2002 18:50:42 -0800

Firetail Documentation wrote:

Not really. Borrowing a word and borrowing a grammatical structure are not the same thing.

Really? Why not?

Because individual words can be easily absorbed into existing structures. There has to be a pressing reason for a new grammatical structure to replace an existing one.

It also borrows grammatical structures -- Irish Gaelic, Dutch, and French in particular have lent grammatical usages, particularly in the form of idiom, to English in the last three hundred years, and been widely accepted.

English and Dutch are both Western Germanic languages, so they have some grammatical similarity (and modern Frisian, incidentally, is very close to Old English). And I suppose that the tendency to place adjectives after nouns in verse to make rhyming easier may owe something to French.
However, otherwise, i can't think of a single grammatical structure from any of these languages that has become part of standard English. What did you have in mind?

The only difference is one happened at the street level and the other in centres of learning. I don't see why one is legitimate and the other not -- if not learned people, then who SHOULD set the standards for formal writing?

Legitimacy has nothing to do with it. The educated have tried for centuries to set the standards, not only for formal writing, but for the language in general. They've failed spectularly in their efforts to have people accept their authority.

In fact, there's no need for anyone to set the standards for formal writing. In any given age, there's a general consensus about different levels of diction/

To reject a feature of language merely because it originates from without is isolationist

Maybe, but linguistic change tends to be conservative. Several centuries of prescriptivist attempts to make English more like Latin have largely failed, because it means a radical changes in the commonly used structures of the language. The reason isn't any sort of linguistic chauvunism - it's just practicality. The preference for Latin grammar is completely arbitrary, offering no advantages over the existing structures in English - and, in many cases, resulting in considerable awkwardness. the attempt to impose Latin grammar on Engish hasn't been very successful simply because Latin structures offer no particular advantages over the native English ones.

People became convinced quite some time ago that dangling modifiers were acceptable in day-to-day speech, but should be avoided in formal writing;
today, that simply is the higher standard, like it or not, and regardless of its source.
The reason to avoid dangling modifiers is that they are unclear, not because someone has decreed that they are ungrammatical. To avoid them because there is a prescription against them rather than because they interfer with communication is to lose sight of the purpose of writing.

It might have been arguable at that point, but two hundred years of use has fairly entrenched the practice in the language to the point that it's expected.

Not really. Take a random work by any famous writer in the last two hundred years, and the chances are excellent that you'll find a sentence that ends in a preposition.

It doesn't bother me where our standards of formal writing originate any more than it bothers me where words in the vocabulary originate.

If the standards cause awkwardness or stiltedness, it should concern you. Writing to rules and writing well have no necessary connection to each other.

I don't so much when I'm communicating formally, because people expect us to aim higher when we do. You may see it as artificial; I see it as the reason I'm

No, people expect us to communicate well. If that involves breaking an artificial rule that is of no use and is unrecognizable to most of the audience, then I think that rule should be broken.
Moreover, if all you could do was write in a formal tone, then you wouldn't be employed at all. Your ability to write clearly and to organize your thoughts is much more important than your ability to follow arbitrary rules.-- Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

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