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