The Return of the Dangling Modifiers
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.”
Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips and get a free eBook!
- Our weekly newsletter is free (one email per week, on Tuesdays)
- You will improve your English, guaranteed.
- Get our "100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid" eBook free.