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Karen Virag

GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Things that dangle

Torso of a nude man, from neck to waist, holding a nude baby.

Things that dangle in the night. And in the day.

Hours before giving birth, a woman’s boyfriend leaves her for her best friend and quits the talent agency they run together to start his own competing business.

Torso of a nude man, from neck to waist, holding a nude baby.Now that is one amazing—and appalling!—boyfriend. First he gives birth, then he betrays his girlfriend. Typical man.

In actuality what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is not an entry for the Guinness Book of World Records but, instead, an example (taken from an actual text) of a dangling modifier—the bane of many a writer’s existence and the source of many a reader’s amusement.

Simply put, a dangling modifier is a part of a sentence, usually an introductory element, that does not actually modify a noun or clause in the sentence. Instead, it dangles there, distractingly, causing confusion, unsure of what to do. To continue a theme, it is much like some men in the delivery room.

Consider this sentence:

At age seventeen, his family moved to Edmonton.

Grammatically, the phrase “at age seventeen” modifies the subject of the sentence, “his family.” In reality, the person to whom the phrase refers is not mentioned in the sentence. The sentence should be rewritten to something like

When he was seventeen, his family moved to Edmonton.

Here’s another example:

Not being overly large, you are able to receive friendly service and advice from our staff.

Though it sounds as though the company in question doesn’t like chubby people, what they really meant to say was that because the company is not that big, its staff gives friendly, personal service.

Danglers are similar to misplaced modifiers, which make a sentence nonsensical (and often quite funny). Consider this misplaced modifier by Groucho Marx, from the 1930 film Animal Crackers:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

Or this line from a medication pamphlet:

Discuss the risks and benefits of using this medication while breastfeeding with your doctor.

And so we come full circle, back to babies, men and things that dangle.

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Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.


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