Friday, June 22, 2012

Guest Blog: Dangling Modifiers, Gangling Grammer

Sometimes, I'll come across laughable images which materialize from sentences that mean one thing but are understood as something else altogether. No, I am not talking about irony (simulated ignorance, contrariness in wit) or rhetoric (an impressive lack of sincerity); those are literary and verbal techniques intended to put a spin on language and circumstance. The culprit, of course, is the dangling participle or misplaced modifier (aka dangling modifiers), those humorous errors in sentence structure that leave our words hanging. I know I have done this subconsciously in my own writing, and perhaps you have, too.

Let's look at it another way. You wouldn't make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from ham and cheese, would you? Nor would you call a BLT combo a Fluffernutter sandwich. Each meal is distinct and implies nothing else (I don't know why I'm thinking about food right now!). Likewise, you wouldn't want to place confusion in your writing? Here are examples where language has gone wrong structurally, leaving us with a few good laughs along the way:

Biking in the rain, the cluttered storefront provided his family the closest shelter.—or—
Jogging along the path, the grazing deer suddenly raised their heads then bolted from view.
—and this—
The young girl spotted an ice cream truck near the corner dusting off her messy clothes.—or even this—
Rusted beyond repair, I took the old lawnmower to the alley and got rid of it.

Who, I ask, is biking in the rain (the cluttered storefront?) or jogging along the path (the grazing deer? That would be a sight for St. Nicklaus!). Is the ice cream truck doing the dusting off then? And who is rusted beyond repair? (I feel that way sometimes, yes, but not today! So it must be the old lawnmower that's rusted then.) These are dangling participles or misplaced modifiers, or as I like to call it—gangling grammar. And any sentence structured like the ones I mention above will prick and tickle an editor pouring over your labor of love, your submitted work.

To help sort out the confusion, let me begin by stating that a verb (a doing word) must always point to its noun (the subject). We know this, yes? But we also have variations in verbs, and a participle is one variation formed from a verb; as well, it can show the characteristics of both verbs and adjectives (in some languages, as adverbs, too). For example, jog is a verb, and jogging is a present participle of jog. Bear with me here if all this is mindless drivel to your practiced ears. So I could say jogging along the path, which becomes a participial phrase, because it contains the present participle and because it isn't a full sentence by itself. If I were to draw out a complete sentence I would say, I went jogging along the path. Here, went jogging points correctly to the subject I.

We wind up with a dangling participle when the phrase jogging along the path cannot correctly point to its subject (noun) in a sentence, whether complete, compound, or complex; and the dangling often takes place when the participial phrase is placed at the front of the sentence. So to use the example from above with the grazing deer:

Jogging along the path, the grazing deer suddenly raised their heads then bolted from view.

We know fully well that you, or I, or someone other than the grazing deer went jogging along the path. (And if deer can jog along a path then I am good for grazing, going cold before headlights, and taking flight at the slightest disturbance.) All the same, we need to place the correct subject in its rightful place in a sentence that might be written like this:

1. As I went jogging along the path, the grazing deer suddenly raised their heads then bolted from view.
—or this—
2. Jogging along the path, I startled the grazing deer who suddenly raised their heads then bolted from view.

Misplaced modifiers work the same way, and #2 is an example of one. Notice how my "jogging" phrase in front now points correctly to the subject I. Modifiers are usually adjectives (for e.g., large) and nouns (for e.g., sun) that are used as attributes to qualify or modify a greater noun (large sun room). A misplaced modifier should point to the correct noun, as shown in my example #2 above. Grammar pundits, including Fowler, Kenneth Wilson, Patricia O'Conner and others insist that misplaced modifiers create no ambiguity in the reader, although the reader is bound to hesitate or become rattled by the writer's blunder. Here's another misplaced example (note the passive voice, another contributor to the problem):

Having read the book, my critique was read to the entire class.

In fact, I read the book, not my critique, but a reader would understand what is meant in the sentence, however wrong it may be by its odd structure. In A Writer's Reference, Sixth Edition online, Diana Hacker says, "Though it may be a good thing to amuse readers now and again, most of us would prefer to do so intentionally. When we write a dangling modifier, the joke is at our expense."

So to grammatically correct the misplaced modifier, I should write:  Having read the book, I read my critique to the entire class.

While working with an author recently, a few dangling modifiers showed up in the finished draft, and I spared no time marking up the guilty sentences. Now, wait a minute! That's not what I meant to say, although that sentence might sound right and make it seem as if there isn't any confusion. I, not the few dangling modifiers, had been working with an author recently. So let me recast the sentence: While working with an author recently, I ran across a few dangling modifiers that showed up in the finished draft, and I spared no time marking up the guilty sentences and sending them to the cleaners.

Ignatius Valntine Aloysius is a member of the American Copy Editors SocietyHe lives in Evanston, Illinois, and occupies a small farmhouse there that once used to be a barn. When he isn't teaching or working in his design studio, he writes fiction and poetry to keep his mind warm and fuzzy.

1 comment:

Paul said...

You're right, of course, but we still know what the writer meant with the dangling modifier. As comical as it is written, there is still sense there. And if it's the voice of the narrator, grammar is optional. In fact, the writer Emma Darwin asserts that grammar is a tool, not a rule.

And, yes, sometimes I do want confusion in my writing.