Sunday, September 13, 2009

Grammar: How are they dangling?

I debated about whether or not to tackle split infinitives, but decided to try something a little lighter today since I'm knee deep in work, critiques and books. It isn't an unusual state for me to be in, but it's as good an excuse as any to take some time away from work and reading and do a little writing that doesn't require too much work.

A modifier is a word that otherwise clarifies, describes or gives more information about a concept. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that leaves the subject, concept or word described unclear.

Having finished the laundry, the bed was turned down.

"Having finished" is the action, but the bed (the subject of the main clause) doesn't turn itself down and it doesn't do laundry.

Having finished the laundry, Louise turned down the bed.

In English sentences, the doer is the subject of the main clause that follows, that is Louise. She is the one doing the laundry and turning down the bed. In other words, in the above examples, the modifier left dangling is Louse, the object of the action and the subject of the introductory clause.

Revising dangling modifiers.

  1. Determine the appropriate or logical subject of the main clause:

  2. Without asking first, the car was taken.

    Who took the car? The sentence reads as though the car needed to ask permission to be taken. Revision:

    Without asking first, Marshall took the car.

    In the main clause, Marshall is the subject who "took the car" (modifying phrase). The sentence makes sense.

  3. Change a dangling phrase into an introductory clause by naming the subject of the action in the clause:

  4. Unless his name is given, it will be impossible to introduce him.

    The way the sentence reads now, "it" doesn't know the name to introduce. Who would do the introduction? Consider this revision:

    Unless the butler knows his name, it will be impossible to introduce him.

    It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

  5. Combine phrase and main clause:

  6. To enhance his appearance, the suit was tailored.

    Who wanted to enhance his appearance? The suit would enhance its own looks? Combine the phrase and main clause into a simple, complete sentence.

    John enhanced his appearance by having his suit tailored.

More examples of danglers:

  • Incorrect: After reading the novel, the motivation remains unclear.

  • Revised: After reading the novel, I find the motivation unclear.

  • Incorrect: When you leave your job, your home should be a haven from work.

  • Revised: When you leave your job, you should be able to relax at home.

  • Incorrect: The revisions made no sense, not having read the rules of grammar.

  • Revision: The author's revisions made no sense, not having read the rules of grammar.

I'll grant you some of these examples seem a bit stilted, but they are obvious in order to point out where dangling modifiers often occur. Check your sentences thoroughly and make sure the modifiers are connected and clear without dangling. Until next week, may good grammar become easier and the grammar goofs rare.

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