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Jots and Tittles: Dangling, he wrote a modifier.

Some grammatical terms sound very impressive, and you can use them to make people think you know what you’re talking about. One of my personal favourites is “non-defining relative clause”, for example; a guaranteed show-stopper (although that’s mainly because people fall asleep before you’ve finished saying it). Other grammatical terms sound faintly ridiculous, and it’s one of these we’re discussing in this article.

A dangling modifier is, unsurprisingly, a modifier which happens to dangle, which is logical, but requires some explanation.

A modifier is a word or a phrase which describes a thing or an action in slightly more detail. For example, an adverb is a word which can modify a verb or an adjective, as here:

Henry ran quickly as the dog snapped angrily at his heels.

Here, the words “quickly” and “angrily” describe the words “ran” and “snapped” in more detail. How did Henry run? Quickly. How did the dog snap? Angrily.

Similarly, adjectives can modify nouns, like this:

A terrified Henry ran as the fierce dog snapped at his heels.

(Purists may argue that adjectives qualify; but this is just making life more complicated than it needs to be.) Here, “terrified” and “fierce” describe Henry and the dog in more detail. What state was Henry in? He was terrified. What was the dog like? Fierce.

Sometimes, we can use entire phrases to modify certain things. For example:

A puffing, panting, sweating Henry ran as the dog, angered by Henry’s stealing its bone, snapped at his heels.

Now the phrases “puffing, panting, sweating” and “angered by Henry’s stealing its bone” describe Henry and the dog.

This all seems perfectly logical thus far. But the risk of doing something silly increases when we start to play around a bit with the sentence structure. Consider this:

Puffing, panting and sweating, Henry ran from the dog.

Angered by Henry’s stealing its bone, the dog gave chase.

Now we’ve moved the modifiers to the beginning of the sentence. Absolutely no problem, as long as we observe this one simple rule: the modifier modifies whatever it happens to be nearest to. Now, here’s a sentence that breaks this rule:

Puffing, panting and sweating, the dog snapped at Henry’s heels.

This sentence makes it sound as if it was the dog which was puffing, panting and sweating; but in fact, the modifier is intended to describe Henry. It’s just been put too far away from the thing it’s supposed to be modifying. This breaks the connection between the two, and the modifier is left dangling. Desparate not to fall into the chasm of Grammatical Hell, it clings onto whatever it can find to hold on to: in this case, the dog.

In his book Troublesome Words, Bill Bryson cites this real-life example: When dipped in melted butter or Hollandaise sauce, one truly deserves the food of the gods. As written, this sentence means that people who have been dipped in butter or sauce deserve the food of the gods: the modifier should be attached to “food of the gods”, but dangles, and ends up clinging to “one”.

The following is a list of some examples. I made most of them up myself, but the first one (just to prove that English isn’t the only language with this problem) is translated from a German original.

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, the conquerors invaded.
Note that the thing that is supposed to be modified — in this case it was southern England — is completely missing.
Identified as the ringleader of the rioters, the governor ordered him to be put into solitary confinement.
We have to assume that the governor didn’t organise the riots, if only because prison governors don’t do that sort of thing usually.
Tasting of mushrooms, she enjoyed the soup.
How many women do you know taste like mushrooms?
Cursing loudly, the car ground to a halt.
Again, the thing being modified is missing. Presumambly it’s the driver: certainly, most cars don’t curse, not even quietly.
With a new coat of paint, she stepped back to admire the wall.
Even if animal rights protestors had thrown paint over her fur coat, we wouldn’t refer to it as a “coat of paint”.

However, just to make life a bit complicated, there are some modifiers that you can dangle at will. Mainly, these are idiomatic phrases, and so the fact that they can be dangled has more to do with the fact that everyone knows what they mean than any specific grammar rule. If you want a grammar rule, though, you can imagine them as modifying the entire sentence, or describing the attitude of the speaker. Among them, we have:

  • Speaking of which…
  • Generally speaking…
  • Putting two and two together…
  • To be honest…
  • Joking aside…
  • Looking at it this way…

There are, of course, many more. But such, unfortunately, is English grammar: almost as many exceptions as rules.

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