How Safe Is Your Syntax From A Dangling Modifier?


Having determined that dangling modifiers make the writer look like a chump, Layman’s Terms will avoid them from now on.

Wait, wait…  Layman’s Terms didn’t determine anything. I did! For myself, at least. You probably knew it already. But it’s another rule of usage that was never on any test I took.

The worst ones sure do look bad. Bill Bryson uses “Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile” as the poster pimple illustrating this syntactical blemish. It’s a funny one–the face hands the whisky.

But it’s not often that a truly egregious dangling modifier like it finds its way into print. I think our brains come standard with a low threshold for such jumbling.

Avoiding the passive voice is one way of staying out of trouble. Purdue University’s helpful online grammar site gives several examples of dangling modifiers, almost all of which flop because of passive voice in the main clause.

Here’s my modest proposal: Just don’t begin any sentences with modifying clauses. You’ll never get a dangler. And even when the modifier is clear about what it modifies, it usually sounds bad.

How many terrible bio blurbs begin with something like “A passionate world traveler, gourmande and djembe beater, Petunia Zickafoose is a polymath without equal…”? No laws are broken here, but it sets my AMATEUR! alarm blaring.

Put the main thing first, then tell more about it.

5 Replies to “How Safe Is Your Syntax From A Dangling Modifier?”

  1. Avoiding sentences with subordinate clause openers will not completely avoid the problem of misplaced modifiers. They can appear in the middle (e.g., The doctor told me frequently to exercise) or at the end (e.g., I work hard for the money I make usually) of a sentence as well. Also, left-branching sentences, which rely on opening with clauses and phrases, contribute greatly to a writer’s style.

  2. Phil, good point.
    Most of the really ugly ones I see in actual use (as opposed to textbooks) have the misplaced modifier at the beginning, though maybe I just haven’t been looking as closely at the middle.

    What’s a left-branching sentence? Sounds interesting.

  3. Base Clause: Jim Houston blogs.

    Left-branch: Since he has a passion for writing, Jim Houston blogs.

    Mid-branch: Jim Houston, who has a passion for writing, blogs.

    Right-branch: Jim Houston blogs because he has a passion for writing.

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