Sunday, 20 December 2009

Don't be left dangling!

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a phrase or clause which says something different from what is meant because words are left out. The meaning of the sentence, therefore, is left "dangling."
Incorrect: While driving on Greenwood Avenue yesterday afternoon, a tree began to fall toward Wendy H's car.
(It sounds like the tree was driving! This actually appeared in a newspaper article. An alert reader wrote, "Is the Department of Motor Vehicles branching out and issuing licenses to hardwoods? Have they taken leaf of their senses?")
Adding a word or two makes the sentence clear.
Correct: While Wendy H was driving on Greenwood Avenue yesterday afternoon, a tree began to fall toward her car.
When a modifier "dangles" so that the sentence is meaningless (or means something other than your intent), restate it and add the words it needs in order to make sense.

Misplaced Modifiers

This is a common problem in American speech. Writing has to be more precise than speaking, or it will be misunderstood.
A misplaced modifier is simply a word or phrase describing something but not placed near enough the word it is supposed to modify. The modifying word or phrase is not dangling; no extra words are needed; the modifier is just in the wrong place.
Incorrect: I had to take down the shutters painting the house yesterday.
It sounds like the shutters painted the house! Place the modifying phrase painting the house near or next to the word it is meant to modify.
Correct: Painting the house yesterday, I had to take down the shutters.
 How to fix:
  1. Understand what dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers are. A “dangling modifier” just dangles at the beginning of the sentence, unconnected to any logical subject. A “misplaced modifier” is just that--out of place. The thing it’s describing is there, but the two are not properly linked.

  2. Step 2
    Watch out for “-ing” words at the beginning of a sentence--these often signal a dangling modifier. Take a look at this sentence: "When writing, modifiers can help you clarify your points." The first part of the sentence--“When writing”--is a dangling modifier. Why? Because the word that follows it--“modifiers”--doesn’t make any sense. Modifiers write? Really? Think about what the writer really wants to say: “When you are writing, modifiers can help you clarify your points.”

  3. Step 3
    Fix dangling modifiers in two ways: by adding a subject into the modifier itself, or by adding the logical subject immediately after the modifier. Try both ways to see what works for your sentence; sometimes, both methods will work. We saw the first fix in Step 2. Here’s another: “When writing, you can use modifiers to help you clarify your points.”

  4. Step 4
    Beware passive verbs--they can lead to dangling modifiers. Passive verbs occur when you use a form of “to be” plus the past participle form of a verb, such as “was killed” or “were purchased.” Passive voice eliminates the actor in a sentence. Check out what happens when you use a modifier with passive verb: “Screaming wildly, the pumpkins were thrown by the boys.” Maybe in a Halloween movie, but in real life, perhaps not. The passive verb “were thrown” gives the modifier “Screaming wildly” nothing to modify. Fix it by changing the passive verb to active, clarifying who’s doing the action: “Screaming wildly, the boys threw the pumpkins.”

  5. Step 5
    Watch out for words like “only,” “almost,” “even” and “nearly,” because these modifiers are frequently misplaced. Make sure they appear directly before what they describe. Take a look at this sentence: “Annette only ate two cookies.” The modifier, “only,” appears before “ate,” which suggests that the writer expected Annette to devour, crush or demolish two cookies--not just eat them. Logic tells us that the writer intended to clarify the number of cookies Annette ate. Fixing a misplaced modifier is easy--just move it before what it modifies: “Annette ate only two cookies.”

    Source: here and here


Anonymous said...

I tried twice to post to this. The second time it said it stuck and then didn't? A bit gimpy tonight...

Anyhow, an excellent post.

My own writing is flowery in places. It's hard to know when it works and when it doesn't.

Thanks for posting. :)

Terry Odell said...

Good reminders. In my crit group, I still hold the record for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages.