From The Economist
Reading this sentence, it may occur to you that something is slightly awry with it. Or you may not notice anything wrong at all. The first three words are a “dangling modifier”. This writing fault has been deprecated for over a century. It has made its way into countless usage guides, perhaps because of its catchy and evocative name, as something to be avoided at all costs.
The most common kind of dangling modifier is a dangling participle, as at the beginning of this column. Participles are those verb forms that end in -ing in the present tense, and usually in -ed in the past tense: playing, played. (Some past participles, like born and spoken, are irregular.) Participles are so named because they “participate” in two parts of speech. They are verbs in sentences like She has spoken French for three decades, but act like adjectives in those like French is the most spoken language in Belgium.
Participles can be used to add some contextual or explanatory information to a sentence: Speaking Spanish, he ordered three beers. Spoken in Paraguay, Guaraní is the source of the word “jaguar”. Since participles are a bit like a verb, readers seek an appropriate subject to go with them, typically in the first noun they find. The problem comes when these don’t match up. Writing gurus have often conjured up clumsy examples to highlight the issue: Trembling with fear, the clock struck twelve. After fighting the flames for hours, the ship was finally abandoned. The clock was not trembling, nor did the ship fight the flames.
By no means do such abominations have to be invented. Take “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow!” The quotation, from E.L. James’s “50 Shades of Grey”, has a classic dangling participle, the kind of thing that makes critics mock the style of her erotic novels. (A bit of envy may be mixed in with the condescension: “50 Shades” was the bestselling novel of the 2010s.)
Consider, though, that James Donaldson, who provides this example in his recent doctoral dissertation, also cites 21 dangling modifiers from a rather more critically admired source: Virginia Woolf. “Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her.” “Rubbing the glass of the long looking-glass and leering sideways at her swinging figure a sound issued from her lips.” “Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too.”
The idea that an introductory phrase must always apply to the subject of the clause that follows is a useful rule, but not a cardinal one. Speakers often introduce a remark with some throat-clearing about their own feelings on the statement to come, as in “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It is but a short step to saying things like Frankly, he is lying to you—which under a strict rejection of “dangling modifiers” would be incoherent, as the speaker, not the liar, is being frank.
Yet these kinds of things crop up all the time, as when Richard Nixon said “Speaking as an old friend, there has been a disturbing tendency in statements emanating from Peking to question the good faith of President Reagan.” The dangling participle—“Speaking as an old friend”—has nothing to attach itself to. But Speaking as… is also a common introduction, the type that includes Considering, Assuming, Leaving aside and so forth. Only occasionally are these accompanied by an explicit I or we, which are nevertheless so strongly implied that they hardly need spelling out—a reason so many dangling modifiers go unnoticed. Moreover English sentences often have a dummy subject, such as “it” (Considering inflation, it seems plausible…) or “there are” (Given our situation, there are three options…). That makes dangling modifiers all the more likely to slip past editors.
It is best for writers to avoid, and those editors to fix, any danglers that give rise to absurdity, or even just a momentary jolt of confusion. Even if they bother only a few readers, those readers are disproportionately likely to think that the writer does not know how the parts of a sentence are meant to be combined. They are also disproportionately likely to write letters to the editor.
Link to the rest at The Economist
Dangling participles are modifiers in search of a word to modify. Dangling participles can be unintentionally funny because they make for awkward sentences.
The participle in subordinate clauses should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence.
An example of a dangling participle would be: “Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed.” This makes it seem like the unfortunate deer was driving. Correct the sentence by including the missing proper noun. “Driving like a maniac, Joe hit a deer.” The corrected sentence makes it clear that Joe was driving.
. . . .
Avoid dangling participles because they can make your sentences awkward and give them unintended meanings. The Writing Center at the University of Madison gives several humorous examples:
- Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.
- Waiting for the Moonpie, the candy machine began to hum loudly.
- Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
- She handed out brownies to the children stored in plastic containers.
- I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.
Link to the rest at ThoughtCo