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I found the following sentence in one of our questions: Use of "having" in English,

The customer having left, the criminal takes out a pin from his purse and scrapes off hardened glue from the edges of the keys.

It gave me a grammar warning immediately. After thinking about it for a while, I concluded two points:

  • The phrase The customer having left looks odd as a participle phrase. It should be just Having left. But then again, if the part The customer were removed, we would have gotten another kind of error, and the meaning would have been changed.

  • It seem like The customer having left is a dangling participle phrase. The phrase itself and the main clause don't seem to coherent well enough. Some conjunction such as after should have been added, or the sentence should have been revised.

So I would like to ask: Is the phrase 'the customer having left' above good English?

NOTE: I personally don't think it is, otherwise I could write something funny such as this:

John walking into the woods, I followed him, we walking together for two hours, John walked, I walked, John having fallen down, I picked him up, we continuing walking, I like the woods, the woods smelling nice, John saying something, I didn't hear him, we continuing walking, John keeping walking, this was so much fun.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It is not a dangling participle per se, but rather an example of an absolute (which I was taught to call nominative absolute).

A so-called "dangling participle" is a participial phrase which is ambiguous as to what it modifies, e.g.

Watching the sunset, the beach went silent.

In the above case, the sentence reads as if the beach were watching, rather than the people.

In the construction you have cited, there is no ambiguity as to who is leaving; it is clearly the customer. The construction serves to provide contextual information, essentially modifying the entire sentence or clause. It does not modify any individual word in a sentence, and can be removed without changing the meaning, hence the term absolute (borrowed from Latin grammar and its ablative absolutes).

I would not say absolutes are especially common, but they are a familiar feature:

Economically speaking, Turkey has performed well.

The committee having completed its business, the meeting was adjourned at 12:00 noon.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

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1  
This makes at least the first part of my funny in-the-wood sentence, John walking into the woods, I followed him, sounds better than I've thought. Am I correct? –  Damkerng T. Feb 6 at 15:27
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Better (but still a bit awkward-sounding to me) would be "John having walked into the woods, I followed him." A good way to work this out is to see if you can replace the construction with "because". "Because a wel-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." –  BobRodes Feb 6 at 16:00
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@DamkerngT. What Bob said. Think of it like referring to a state of being, rather than an actual action. "John walking into the woods" brings an image to mind of that action; you imagine John walking. "John having walked into the woods..." is referencing a state of being, meaning something like: "Because it is currently the case that John has already walked into the woods, [x]." –  WendiKidd Feb 6 at 20:26
    
The following might be useful for native speakers to understand ELLs. Participle constructions being used in place of clauses are discussed in most grammar books, I believe. However, participle constructions with the different subject from the main clause are likely not discussed. Of the three examples, all are familiar except for The committee having completed its business, the meeting was adjourned at 12:00 noon. The sentence in my question also has this very same structure. –  Damkerng T. Feb 7 at 1:57
    
@BobRodes and WendiKidd: Thank you for the suggestion, I've read from one book that participle constructions are common after with/without. How about With John walking into the woods, I followed him; or With John having walked into the woods, I followed him? ---- If you'd like to answer this in another question, please say so, I can ask about them as a new question too. –  Damkerng T. Feb 7 at 1:59

You could probably replace that phrase with:

After the customer leaves, the criminal takes out a pin...

but that loses some of the meaning. The use of the participle implies that the criminal only took the pin out of his purse because the customer had left. He didn't simply get to work after the departure of the customer. He looked around to make sure the customer was gone, because beforehand he'd been waiting around for the customer to leave.

You couldn't use it in the present tense, though, like you do in your funny walking-in-the-woods sentence. I don't think you could say:

The customer leaving, the criminal takes out a pin...

I think it has something to do with the customer having left already, but I'm not 100% sure on this part.

Someone better acquainted with the rules in play here can clear up why this is allowed, because I'm not sure exactly. I just know that it's allowable, at least colloquially (if not officially).

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I review a handful of grammar books, most of them don't discuss perfect participle constructions that have a different subject from the main clause at all, afaict. However, the only one that mentions this is Longman English Grammar, though very briefly: "participle constructions are common after with/without". I think perhaps we can write: With the customer leaving, the criminal takes out a pin ... –  Damkerng T. Feb 7 at 1:50
    
I think you're right, @DamkerngT. We could also write With the customer having left, the criminal takes out a pin... –  abby hairboat Feb 7 at 13:55

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