I’ve got your modifier dangling right here, pal!

Alternate title: Why we all need an editor – Reason # 53

You know... like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills...

You know… like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills…

Many of the writing problems discussed here in the past, such as failing to eliminate extraneous words, can be overcome through practice and refinement. As our skills develop, we should be able to look at our prose and quickly identify the clutter.

However, even the best of us still need an editor, because we can’t catch everything.  And one of the toughest mistakes to spot in our own writing is the dangling modifier. I’ve seen this hideous little creature show up in plenty of published works, and I’m sure I’ve birthed my share. It often has the troublesome quality of being invisible to its creator yet hilariously obvious to everyone else.

The dangling modifier occurs when the writer mistakenly links an action or quality to the object of a sentence instead of to the subject of that sentence (or vice versa). Or when the writer is not clear about what is being modified.

Or something.

Sorry to sound so English teachery. I hate didactic writing discussions. In less boring terms, a dangling modifier occurs when, um… err… Look here, you’re just going to have to accept that dangling modifiers are plain old boring to talk about! I didn’t invent the bloody things, so let’s try to get through all this as painlessly as…

You know what? Why don’t we go straight to the examples?

*

Ex. 1: “Harry told John that he was an asshat, since it was common for him to say rude things.”

Did Harry call John an asshat because Harry is often rude, or was Harry simply fed up with John’s frequent rudeness?

*

Ex. 2: “Mary awoke to find blood on her sheets, suggesting she had turned into a werewolf during the night and killed yet again.”

Did Mary come out and suggest she had killed people the previous night, or did the blood on her sheets suggest that?

*

Ex. 3: “A noted filmmaker in the fantasy genre, The Hobbit marks Peter Jackson’s fourth outing at the helm of a movie based on a Tolkien novel.”

This type of construction shows up in a lot of entertainment articles, and I suspect it’s a product of the writer trying to vary the sentence structure. If you’re reading it quickly, you may not notice that the sentence actually tells us The Hobbit is a noted filmmaker.

I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers without an editor. You’ll just have to read and examine the logic of each sentence to make sure it means what you think it means.

You can also go overboard in the other direction. For example, the first sentence in the previous paragraph would be more definitive if it said, “I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers if you choose to self-edit rather than to retain the services of a professional editor, who could give your manuscript a fresh read and spot such errors.” I didn’t explain all that because I figured you knew what I meant from the context.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I try to avoid absolutes in regard to writing rules. I ask you: What’s worse, a slight dangle that assumes the reader can understand context, or a perfectly clear, yet clunky and verbose, construction? Sometimes we have to take a cue from Johnny Cash and Walk the Line.

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16 responses to “I’ve got your modifier dangling right here, pal!

  • feminineocean

    Fellow blogger because I really like your blog. I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. If you want to acknowledge this award and share it with your followers, click on the following link for the rules. You can take your time, as I did. Otherwise, just know I appreciate your blogs. http://rigzenchomo.com/2013/01/03/one-lovely-blog-award/

  • nrhatch

    When we were house hunting in NJ, the realtor suggested a house in Shamong.

    Me: Not a chance.

    Him: Why not? It’s a lovely community with . . .

    Me: No way. Every time I hear “Shamong” . . . it’s modified in my mind with “I got your Shamong right here.”

    Him: What about Cherry Hill?

    Me: Doable. 😉

    • nrhatch

      OK . . . back to your post. Dangling modifiers like #3 don’t bother me as much as #1.

      In 3, I’m sure I know what the writer meant to say because I’ve never heard of a hobbit directing a movie whereas Peter Jackson is known for doing just that.

      But #1 leaves me in the dark. Who is the rude asshat? Is it Harry? John? Or, perhaps, it’s the writer . . . who, in addition to tossing about dangling modifiers, appears to be a gossip monger and/or a tattle-tale.

      • ericjbaker

        I hate that guy who wrote # 1! I’d say he’s a troublemaker, but that would make me just as bad.

        As for Peter Jackson, I was once a big fan, but I think he needs an editor too. The kind who edits out scenes that do nothing to advance the story.

    • ericjbaker

      I’ll always have a soft spot for Cherry Hill. I got my first book about horror movies at the mall there when I was about 7 or 8. I must have read that thing about 500 times. I still have it, though it’s mostly just strips of tape with brittle, yellowed paper hanging from them.

      I still can’t believe she said yes when I begged her to buy it, and that was about 100 years ago.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I am as guilty of the occasional dangling modifier as the next writer, and am always amazed (and sometimes horrified, depending upon the result) at how I managed to not notice at the time of writing.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    This is great, Eric, the examples are terrific! I especially love the Johnny Cash video ~ it’s one of my favorites Johnny songs.

  • Laura

    Of your three examples, I think the first is the most egregious, but not because of a dangling modifier. The problem is that there is no clear antecedent to the pronoun “he.” It can refer to either Harry or John. Hope I’m not being an asshat to point that out.

    • ericjbaker

      Yeah, I’m being a bit of a lumper on this post, blending similar concepts under one umbrella. You’ve probably noticed from my comments on your blog that I’m more obsessed with content clarity than grammatical exactitude.

      You are welcome to drop by and fine-tune my examples any time!

      Um… Perhaps I should rephrase that.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    Your musical obsession to redo countless mid-stage mix-down retakes in your 24 Track recording studio, on a perfectly tuned guitar– and then screaming inhuman, godless, profanity at Tony because your guitar solo was not “Rush perfect…” is one sign of a pattern I see developing in your blog posts.

    Another is the razor edge skill of you editing job (getting paid obscene fees to scream at a CEO over an “i” without a dot on top,) That is kind of a red flag, like the kind we wave at each other in Texas to insult another into a pistol duel.

    And as of late, your ruthless, conservative campaign to mandate slicing off microseconds by destroying extra linguistic tongue clicks, and soft palate wisps from extra, pompous, hyperbole such as flowery vowels,

    I spent all day wondering what you would do if I sneaked up while your were alphabetizing your garbage can in your cubicle, And I pushed your immaculately perpendicular pencil slightly askew on your desk.

    I decided that you would either have to be put in a straight jacket, or I would need to go into the witness protection program. How much Earl Grey do you drink?

    Have you ever tried the new sleepy-time herbal tea with chamomile and the pour in Xanax powder packet? It is just a suggestion.

    I look forward to receiving a corrected version of my comment in an email with lots of frowny faces and Mr. Yuk stickers on it. I know how “retard” is spelled so you might want to use another big word.

    It is my lack of initiative. You are right. My dad was right.I never would finish what

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