Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dangling modifiers

In "about me and this blog" (left margin), I say that because dangling modifiers are boring, I'm not going to write about them in this blog. This post is about dangling modifiers.

Here's what happens. Somebody writes something like "Walking to the bus stop, the sun shone bright." (And allow me to digress for just a moment. I correctly used bright as an adverb to annoy a former colleague who used to add -ly whenever she could, even if the word was better off without it. I don't know if she still does that (it was a long time ago), and I doubt that she reads this blog. It's a gesture.)

Anyhow, as I was saying, someone may write something like "Walking to the bus stop, the sun shone bright." If a member of the language police (LP) sees this, they may say something along the lines of "Presumably, the sun was wearing sensible shoes whilst it walked to the bus stop." (When someone uses "presumably," there's a rebuttable presumption that they're doing disingenuous tude.)

As far as I can tell, there are two objections to dangling modifiers. The first is that they're incorrect. But are they? They're idiomatic, and if something's idiomatic, one who claims that it's incorrect has a serious burden of proof.

The other is that they're ambiguous. To show the ambiguity, the LP typically give some sentences with dangling modifiers and pretend not to understand them.
"Walking to the bus stop, the sun shone bright." Presumably the sun was walking. But it's actually the walker (probably identifiable from the context) who was walking! See how ambiguous it is?

This is the almost invariant pattern. In this paradigm, the person who claims that the sentence is ambiguous knows what it really means. So where's the ambiguity?

Can a dangling modifier be ambiguous? Of course it can. So can just about any other grammatical construction, including those that the LP approve of. The solution is to avoid or correct the ambiguity, not to declare that the grammatical form is unacceptable. (This, by the way, is why I call incorrectness and the ambiguity two separate complaints instead of saying that ambiguity is the reason for the incorrectness.)

Having preached this sermon, you may be wondering what I do when a dangling modifier crosses my ms. editing desk at the scholarly publishing house (and I trust that all of you understand this sentence). Obviously, I de-dangle it (I don't say that I correct it, since I'm not convinced it's incorrect). If the meaning of the dangler were at all ambiguous, I wouldn't be able to make this adjustment. If the author asks about the change, I explain that it's a dangling modifier, that I have no objection to it, that many people do object to it and most publishers consider it unacceptable, and that some people will pretend that they think it means that the sun is walking to the bus stop.

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