The Return of the Dangling Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Like the compositional equivalent of lurching zombies, dangling modifiers insistently, incessantly assault the sensibilities of careful writers (and careful readers). I’ve posted several sets of examples of these misbegotten misconstructions in which an erroneously constructed sentence subject is at odds with the modifying phrase that precedes it, but they keep on coming. Here, in honor of Halloween, I execute another sordid sortie of such monstrous errors.

1. “A biostatistician by training, Smith’s initial study of alcohol as a disease was funded by Jones.”

Smith’s initial study is not a biostatistician by training; he is. Therefore, the modifier (in this case an appositive, a word or phrase that takes the place of another word or phrase: Smith and “a biostatistician by training” refer to the same entity) should follow the subject, so that the sentence reads, “Smith was a biostatistician by training, and his initial study of alcohol as a disease was funded by Jones.”

But this revision might alter the emphasis of the author’s intended meaning. “Smith, a biostatistician by training, received funding from Jones for his initial study of alcohol as a disease” might adhere more closely to the original intent.

2. “After nearly four years behind bars, an Italian jury overturned her conviction for the murder of her roommate.”

If I had been part of that incarcerated panel, I would have avoided the jail time by overturning the defendant’s conviction four years earlier. For this sentence to say what it’s trying to say — that the defendant, not the jury, was exonerated — the defendant needs to be introduced in the introductory modifier: “After she spent nearly four years behind bars, an Italian jury overturned her conviction for the murder of her roommate.”

3. “As a member of a political minority in this area, it’s interesting how people here just assume you think the way they do.”

It is not a minority, the writer is. Writers need not introduce themselves at the expense of the expletive it’s, but they do need to introduce themselves: “As a member of a political minority in this area, it’s interesting to me how people here just assume you think the way they do.”

4. “Born in Los Angeles, this isn’t the first time John Doe has sparked controversy with his artwork.”

This sentence suffers from a distracting diversion similar to the one in the previous example; it identifies LA as the birthplace of this, rather than the hometown of John Doe. The statement’s awkward insertion of a detail that is both unimportant and unrelated to the main part of the sentence is easily remedied; reinsert the biographical detail as a parenthetical following Smith’s name: “This isn’t the first time John Doe, born in Los Angeles, has sparked controversy with his artwork.”

5. “Never a fan nor a detractor, the sheer insanity of the band excited and frightened me enough to stay three hours longer than I intended to.”

The sheer insanity of the band is not its own fan or detractor — the writer is. Therefore, the writer must be the subject of the sentence; I also introduced the modifier nevertheless to signal the contrast between expectation and outcome: “Never a fan nor a detractor, I was nevertheless excited and frightened enough by the sheer insanity of the band to stay three hours longer than I intended to.”

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7 Responses to “The Return of the Dangling Modifiers”

  • Karan

    After nearly four years behind bars, an Italian jury overturned her conviction for the murder of her roommate.”

    Can we also achieve the objective by switching the subjects in the second half of the sentence, i.e.

    >After nearly four years behind bars, her conviction for the murder of her roommate was overturned by an Italian jury.”

    ideally, the subject introduction would still further clarify, but i think the context may allow for omission. or does it still imply the Italian jurors were behind bars? lol

  • Mark Nichol

    Karan:

    In your revision, it is now the conviction that has spent nearly four years behind bars.

  • Sally

    Such examples are becoming more common these days – and the cause is that people open their mouths, or put pen to paper, before they put their brains into gear (and, yes, I must admit to the ‘sin’ too) as the result of being put on the spot for an opinion / comment, or trying to meet deadlines.

    Sadly the perpetrators then try to excuse themselves with a “But you *know* what I meant” – bad enough from my students, but worse from politicians!

  • Stephen Thorn

    I admit that I can miss the subtleties of dangling modifiers and often they have to be pretty blatant for me to trip over them. Let me offer an example here and see if I got the concept straight in my mind:

    A local home-improvement company used to have a radio ad stating in the 17 years they’d been in business they’d never found a problem they couldn’t fix. But the way they phrased it in their ads was “We’ve never found a problem we wouldn’t fix in 17 years.” (Personally, I rather not wait that long to get my house repaired.) Do I have the concept right or am I barking up the wrong tree?

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen:

    I, too, would look askance at the seventeen-year delay. I can understand that the elegance of “We’ve never, in seventeen years, found a problem we wouldn’t fix” might not appeal to copywriters, but “In seventeen years, we’ve never found a problem we wouldn’t fix” works fine. Mentioning the time duration is a good, strong finish to the statement, but not at the expense of proper syntax.

  • Precise Edit

    My rule of thumb:
    If the implied subject of the introductory description doesn’t match the subject of the main sentence, you will have a dangling modifier.

  • Warsaw Will

    These look like real examples, and like most real examples, are completely unambiguous. In these examples, I would suggest, clarity is not at stake; the only reason to avoid them would be that the keen-eyed will say “OOh, a dangling modifier”. . They may be stylistically annoying to those in the know, but they are hardly monstrous errors!

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