Vague's catchphrase used to be "Dangle your modifier and I will fucking cut you", but I'm afraid to say that it's only recently I got around to looking 'dangling modifiers' up. Wikipedia has a good entry on them, saying, basically, that "a dangling modifier... [is] a word or phrase intended to modify one element of a sentence but, owing to its placement... seems to modify another element or none at all. "
So basically, I set about writing a set of dangling modifiers for myself, in sentences like the following:
I scratched a three-day old stubble and pushed open the door to the bathroom.
But you can't tell here whether it's the door to the bathroom that has the three-day old stubble, or the speaker, or somebody else. A better version of the sentence might be:
I scratched the three-day old stubble on the door to the bathroom and pushed it open.
It's probably not good to ask how the door to the bathroom got the three-day old stubble. And then, there was the following example:
Putting a hat and a coat on, I then led a giraffe and an elephant out of the garage.
Now, obviously it's not clear here whether I put the hat and coat on myself, or put the hat and coat on the garage, or put the hat on the giraffe and the coat on the elephant, or a combination of all those things. It would probably depend on the hat, and the coat; and also the elephant, the giraffe, and the garage. What sort of hats do garages wear? Perhaps we'd better ask a linguist.
This sentence is obviously wrong, and the dangling modifier is probably easy to spot:
A coconut fell on Clive, Stanley, Geoffrey and Ned, who were walking through the garden.
Did a coconut fall on Clive, or Stanley, or Geoffrey, or Ned? Only one coconut is specified but several people are walking through the garden. Perhaps it is a pity that more coconuts did not fall. What sentence is more accurate?
Clive was walking through the garden with Stanley, Geoffrey and Ned, when a coconut fell on him.
Stanley was walking through the garden with Clive, Geoffrey and Ned, when a coconut fell on him.
Geoffrey was walking through the garden with Clive, Geoffrey and Ned, when a coconut fell on him.
Ned was walking through the garden with Stanley, Geoffrey and Clive, when a coconut fell on him.
Who is to say? Probably not the one who was the victim of this malingering coconut.
Then there was the following surreal example:
I was walking through the garden, where apples, oranges, dates, grapes, bananas, pears, tomatoes, squashes, turnips and a coconut fell on me, with Clive.
Did Clive fall out of the clear blue sky, or was he merely idling in the garden after either Stanley, Geoffrey or Ned had been conked by a homicidal coconut? Who knows. After a great deal of research, I can reveal that the answer is in fact the following
I was walking through the garden when Clive fell on me with a whole bunch of fruit.
This sentence turns Clive from an innocent loiterer in the garden to a possibly murderous fruitbat. And aren't you glad you found out? It's an important thing to be careful about grammatical phenomenon like dangling modifiers, or perhaps we would never have found out for sure.
And imagine how terrible that would have been for you and me - and Clive!
(Now feel free to comment away and tell me how wrong and sloppy I have been in my commentary about dangling modifiers here.)
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