The Queen’s English Beware the Dangling Modifier

In English where a word appears in a sentence is most important.  By misplacing a word or phrase, you may cause it to dangle; dangling words or phrases “occur in a sentence without having a normally expected syntactic relation to the rest of the sentence” according to Merriam-Webster.  Not thinking much about placement, we tend to misplace words and phrases that describe, limit, or modify.  If we let modifiers dangle by separating them from the words they are intended to modify, the intended meaning can be lost.  Some of the modifiers to watch for are only, even, hardly, not, and scarcely, though this is hardly an exhaustive list.

Have some fun with this sentence:  “Only the superintendent told me to finish the job before noon.”  You can move only from its position and put it before any of the words or at the very end of the sentence, and in each case it will make sense.  Notice how the meaning of the sentence changes with each move of the word, sometimes subtly, others more pronounced.  It illustrates just how important placement can be.

In, “The boy who is delivering our newspaper currently needs a haircut” does currently refer to the time of delivery or does it mean that he is in need of a haircut now?  It will usually take only a small adjustment to remove the ambiguity.  By slightly altering the sentence, “The boy who is currently delivering our newspaper needs a haircut,” the meaning is now clear; or if “currently” refers to the need to cut the hair today, we could say, “The boy who is delivering our newspaper needs a haircut currently” to solve the problem.

Another illustration: “The person who does this job well deserves praise.”  Are we referring to a job well-done or well-deserved praiseWell is not exactly dangling, but its juxtaposition to job and deserved creates an ambiguity.  By inserting “certainly” after well (“The person who does this job well certainly deserves praise.), or by inserting a hyphen, (“The person who does this job well-deserves praise.”), the meaning is clear.

Another category of dangling thoughts is often found in phrases that modify, such as the verbal phrase.  “By running daily, your weight will be controlled”; here the participial phrase (by running daily) must be followed immediately by the noun or pronoun (you) it is modifying.  Your weight is not doing the running; you are.  By putting the phrase next to the word it modifies, the correct construction would be “By running daily, you will control your weight.”

Here is another common (mis)construction: “Driving the car too rapidly, the police gave him a ticket.” Obviously it was not the officer driving the car too rapidly; the dangling participial phrase should be followed immediately by the noun or pronoun it modifies: “Driving the car too fast, the young man was given a ticket by the police officer.”  Doesn’t that just feel better?

How discouraged do you think I was when my bank sent me a fancy announcement: “As a valued customer, we are extending to you the opportunity to . . .”  This is not some local mom-and-pop institution but one that is nation-wide, highly-regarded (well, less so now!), and one that deserves to dangle.  It might have said, “We are extending to you as a valued customer the opportunity to . . . ”.  My theory is that they wanted to put that obsequious phrase, as a valued customer, right out there in front where it could not be missed, rules be damned.

Precision in speaking or writing is achieved with little effort if we take a moment to think about what we are to say in advance.  (There’s an old saw: “Put your mind in gear before speaking.”)  The best part is that it is habit-forming!

– Ken Butera


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