From proper punctuation and the decline of the subjunctive to correct etiquette in emails and text messaging, Rogers (known at the National Geographic as StyleMaven) raises questions and renders opinions on the English language.
What's That Dangling?
Posted Sep 9,2008

I’ve written before about danglers, modifiers—usually phrases—that are misplaced in a sentence and instead of clearly modifying what they are meant to, create confusion in the reader’s mind and may even lead to chuckles.

A phrase that set me off recently was one from a photo exhibit at National Geographic, featuring the work of four legendary photographers. The offending sentence, about photographer Kurt Wentzel, reads:

                                “After serving with the Allies in WWII, Wentzel’s boss
                                gave him one of his first assignments with the now
                                famous instructions: ‘Do India.’ ”

The person who had just served in WWII was Wentzel, but by the structure of the sentence that modifying phrase is linked to the boss, the only nearby noun to which a modifier can rightly attach. I was distracted almost too much to appreciate the simple instructions from a bygone era.

Since spotting this dangler in National Geographic’s own copy, I’ve had my eyes drawn to examples in other publications. Here are some.

•    From the Washington Post, appearing both August 30 and 31 on a map:                                                   
                                “Unprotected during Katrina, floodgates have been built to
                                prevent the lake from surging into the city.”

Looking at the sentence by itself, I didn’t know what was unprotected during Katrina. It couldn’t be the floodgates, which had not even been built. With the help of the map, I concluded the phrase applied to three areas designated on the map. I know space is tight in map notes, but still, is that an excuse for obfuscation?

•    Again from the Washington Post and pointed out by another reader in the August 30 “Free For All” column referring to an August 24 description of Joseph Biden:

                                “. . . a 65-year-old with white hair jogging to the lectern.”

At least this example has humor and can almost be forgiven because the writer does know the difference between a podium and a lectern and uses the correct term.

•    Finally, an example in an email from a colleague and attributed to Groucho Marx:

                                “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got
                                in my pajamas I don't know.”

This definitely left me chuckling, perhaps because I can hear in my mind Marx saying it. It was given as an example of a paraprosdokian (from the Greek words for "beyond" and "expectation"), a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader to reframe the first part. To me it’s not a paraprosdokian so much as a perfect example of a misplaced modifier. Other examples of paraprosdokians that do not have danglers:

                                Where there's a will, I want to be in it.

                                I'm trying. . . very trying.

So watch those modifying phrases and make sure they’re attached to the right noun, but be creative and, just for the fun of it, think up sentences that are “beyond expectation.”

Posted by Lesley Rogers | Comments (2)
Filed Under: Grammar


Sep 9, 2008 2PM #

Hi there. I just ame across your website and just had to add some comments - hopefully for your ammusement.
I am always interested in language and the ways in which we use it. I have a (bad?) habit that I inherited from my father, of taking as literally as possible many of the silly things people say, or alternatively, twisting what is said.
For example, as children someone would say "Shut the door - its cold". Dad's reply would be "Well put a blanket over it". Or when mum, whilst reading the paper, would say "Oh, "so-&-so" has died" dad's response was often "What colour?" (read mum's comment as "so-&-so has dyed" and it makes more sense). Another of my dad's expressions that I often stump people with was a reply to that rather lazy greeting of "Morning" (without the "good" preface). Our reply is usually "yes, all day until lunchtime".
I'm not sure that these fit with your blog of the day but I'm hope you can make something of them anyway.

- Ashley
- New Zealand

Rebecca Reeder
Sep 9, 2008 2PM #

Misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers can be one of the most difficult grammar lessons to teach to native language speakers who often understand the intended meaning and argue that the sentence with the "dangler" makes sense.

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