Thursday, 26 May 2011

Dangling modifiers

Which of the following four sentences are just plain bad English?

1. As a little girl of five my mother taught me how to sew.
2. When giving a speech everyone always listened intently to Churchill.
3. When giving a speech Churchill always started with a controversial statement.
4. As a little girl of five my mother loved to climb trees.

1 and 2, of course. Now add these:

• As a white passenger using a “black” taxi several things stand out.
• His singing career was put on hold while completing a doctorate.
• When phoning my sister she always dominates the conversation.
• To avoid choking, always supervise a toddler while eating.

The sentences that are wrong contain “dangling modifiers”. In plain terms: the phrases/clauses indicating time, manner etc. (those starting with as, while and when) are technically referring to the wrong things (even though we usually know what meanings are intended). Appearances to the contrary, sentences 1 and 2 are clearly not intended to suggest that the mother was a little girl of five when she taught the writer of that sentence how to sew and that everyone gave a speech while they were listening to Churchill!

To eliminate such errors, rephrase the sentences in a way that will make the agents (“doers”) of the relevant actions clear. For example, 1 and 2 may be changed to read: “When I was a little girl of five my mother taught me how to sew”; “When Churchill gave a speech everyone always listened intently to him.”

The next time someone produces a sentence without an explicit agent, have some fun: put on a linguistically educated air and say politely: “Excuse me, Sir/Ma’am, you’ve left your modifier dangling.” (Then run!)

But be very, very careful: you, too, may dangle a modifier in a moment of weakness – it happens far more easily than we would like to think! –ws–

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