3 More Sentences with Dangling Modifiers

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When writers attach a phrase to the beginning of a sentence to provide additional information, they must take care that the subject of the sentence actually refers to the action or the thing described in that introductory text. Here are some sentences that illustrate the necessity of this vigilance.

1. “Originally scheduled for retirement (and certain death) in 2003, the hapless racehorse’s trainer now says that after Glorious Spring’s last race, the horse will be allowed to retire to a comfy pasture on a farm near her birthplace.”
This sentence implies that the hapless racehorse’s trainer was originally scheduled for retirement and death – perhaps by execution, because of culpability for the horse’s losing streak? However, it is the horse, not the trainer, whose retirement (and subsequent visit to the slaughterhouse) was averted.

The subject of the sentence must be unambiguous: “The racehorse was originally scheduled for retirement in 2003, but her trainer now says that after Glorious Spring’s last race, the horse will be allowed to retire to a comfy pasture on a farm near Glorious Spring’s birthplace.” (The horse is named again in this revision because the trainer’s gender is not clear — thanks to his ambiguous Japanese name, which is not shown in this excerpt — and “her birthplace” might be misconstrued as the trainer’s.)

2. “Raised in a Lutheran family, two of Paul’s brothers became ministers, and he chose to ‘minister through medicine.’”
Two of Paul’s brothers were raised in a Lutheran family, but so were Paul and another brother, and the sentence implies that Lutherans raised only those who became ministers (and, perhaps that those two brothers were raised in another household); the influence of that upbringing on him is obscured. The sentence should be revised to explicitly place the emphasis on Paul (and I’ve clarified the source of the partial quote): “Paul and his brothers were raised in a Lutheran family, and two of them became ministers, while he chose, as he put it, to ‘minister through medicine.’”

3. “Normally a four-day voyage, the crew only brought four days’ worth of rations, not anticipating a strong headwind to slow the schooner.”
This sentence names the crew as a four-day voyage. To eliminate this unfortunate association, describe the voyage’s customary duration with a simple declarative syntax, then attach the rest of the information: “The voyage normally took four days, and the crew, not anticipating a strong headwind that slowed the schooner, brought only four days’ worth of rations.” (Note, too, how the revision moves and parenthesizes the incidental information about the obstructive headwind.)

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3 thoughts on “3 More Sentences with Dangling Modifiers”

  1. Thank you: those are outstanding examples of modifiers that are “dangling for a mangling”.
    Also, I believe that in some cases like this, the writer had done this:
    1. Written a reasonable sentence.
    2. Edited it to slap a modifier onto the beginning of the sentence.
    3. NOT reread the sentence carefully to find out if it still made sense and it said what he/she thought that it did.

    So, there are cases of people’s stringing together sentences, clauses, and phrases like Tinker Toys – rather than crafting the sentence carefully as coherent whole.
    I am still very much in favor of people’s learning to diagram sentences. I still do this mentally, without having to resort to pencil and paper to do it. For people without the ability in pictoral thinking to do this, I encourage them to get out that paper and pencil (or even a pen).
    For too many people, if it cannot be done on a computer terminal, then it doesn’t get done.

  2. Nice! I had to think for a moment about Paul’s “other” brother(s). Two of his brothers, not his two brothers. I wonder what happened to the other brothers. Black sheep of the family, I guess.

    Another case of “what’s written” vs. “what’s meant.”

  3. A more elegant rewrite of no. 1 could be

    “Originally scheduled for retirement (and certain death) in 2003, hapless racehorse Glorious Spring will be allowed to retire to a comfy pasture on a farm near her birthplace after her last race, her trainer now says.”

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