An acquaintance who used to do copyediting and résumé writing is trying to get back into the editing game. She's worried that her grammar skills are rusty, so she asked me for some tips. I'm not a grammar scholar--in fact, I immediately directed my pal to Grammar Girl's podcasts--but I did offer to share a few of the more common errors I see in my own work: comma splices, that/who confusion, incorrect capitalization of titles.
Everything was going smoothly until we got to Topic #4: dangling clauses.
She'd never heard of them. What's more,when I showed her examples, she couldn't spot the errors. This sentence, a blatant dangler--
After reading the original study, the article remains unconvincing.
--looked perfectly OK to her. She saw the words "After reading" but understood them to mean "After I read," inventing a subject for the dangling first clause in order to make the logical jump to the object in the second clause ("the article").
I'll get back to exactly what's wrong with that sentence (and how to fix it) in a bit. But I want to digress for a minute to talk about why my friend didn't see a problem: it's because the misuse is everywhere. In blogs and e-mails, it goes without saying. But also in publications that supposedly employ copyeditors and proofreaders.
Here are two examples of dangling clauses that I spotted in a single day.
When Tomas Young saw President Bush on television speaking from the ruins of the Twin Towers, he responded to the call to defend his country by enlisting in the Army. But rather than being sent to Afghanistan to rout out Al Qaeda and Taliban warrors, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and everything changed. (From a Landmark Theatres synopsis of the new film Body of War. Offending sentence in boldface.)
Written by Michael McCullers and co-starring Amy Poehler, both of whom worked with her at "SNL," Fey plays Kate Holbrook, a career-minded single woman with fertility issues who hires a seriously mismatched surrogate to carry her child. (From a San Francisco Chronicle interview with Tina Fey.)
Originally used by the now-defunct Koret company, one the [sic] California's largest apparel manufacturers, Pinsky says she believes it may be the only one left.
All of these sentences are like derailed trains. They start down one track--"But rather than being sent to Afghanistan..."--that suggests only one possible destination: in this case, Tomas Young and his fate. But--whoops! The train jumps to a new set of tracks leading in a completely different direction. ("Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq.") Now we've abandoned poor Mr. Young, presumably in boot camp, while we zip over to the battle room of the White House. Mr. Young? Left dangling.
In the second example, something has been written by Michael McCullers. The co-star of that something is Amy Poehler. What is that something to which our little train is headed? Not "Fey," the subject of the second clause. No, it's Baby Mama (or "the film").
In the third example, the sentence starts out by telling us about something that was originally used by the Koret company: an autoclave from the 1940s, identified in the previous paragraph. But instead we're derailed to "Pinsky" (who owns a company that has never been owned by Koret or anything else). Here's an easy fix that smooths out the grammar:
Originally used by the now-defunct Koret company, one of California's largest apparel manufacturers, it may be the only one left, Pinsky says.
(You can get rid of "she believes" because you already have a sense of the conditional from "may be.")
Here's yet another example, taken from an otherwise very touching death notice. (Yes, I'm a compulsive reader of death notices. And yes, I feel sort of mean picking on a grieving family. But all's fair in the public domain.)
A beautiful woman at all stages of her life, her beauty secrets sadly passed with her, except for her famous lagoon-mud and seaweed facial paste.
My first response: what a gal! I wish I'd known her. The sentence, however, is a classic case of derailment. The first clause--"A beautiful woman..."--describes the dearly departed, not "her beauty secrets." This is really two sentences:
Suz was a beautiful woman at all stages of her life. Sadly, her beauty secrets passed with her, except for her famous lagoon-mud and seaweed facial paste.
If you feel strongly that starting with a dependent clause is the only way to go, here's how to clarify it:
A beautiful woman at all stages of her life, Suz kept her beauty secrets a closely guarded mystery--except for her famous lagoon-mud and seaweed facial paste.
Dangling modifiers often come at the beginnings of sentences, but not always. Here's an example of an end-dangler from Paul Brians's Common Errors in English Usage:
The retirement party was a disaster, not having realized that Arthur had been jailed the previous week.
There is nobody here doing the realizing. One fix: “The retirement party was a disaster because we had not realized that Arthur had been jailed the previous week.”
So: back to that unconvincing article in the first example. How can you rewrite it to make it more logical and grammatical? At least a couple of ways:
After I read the original study, I remained unconvinced by the article. (Takes it out of the passive voice and switches the emphasis to "my" experience and "my" response.)
The article remains unconvincing in light of the original study. (No dependent clause. This is one solution offered by the Purdue University grammar tutorial. I'm not crazy about it, though: it sounds stiff, especially "in light of.")
If you're still feeling uncertain about dangling clauses and other misplaced modifiers, here are
three four good resources:
Examples and fixes from Bill Walsh of Blogslot.
A playful approach from Grammar Girl ("Of all the writing errors you can make, misplaced modifiers are among the most likely to confuse your readers, but they're also kind of fun because misplaced modifiers can give your sentences silly meanings that you never intended.")
Examples of "outlaw" sentences and how to rehabilitate them, from Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Includes a link to a quiz.