Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Flash Card: Please Refrain From Dangling

"The voice of a generation, Dylan's albums hit the airwaves at a time when protest songs could actually influence the national discourse."

I was confronted by this sentence when I sat down to take a copyediting test that would determine whether or not I got a job as an assistant editor on a biographical reference series.

I understood that it was Dylan himself who was the voice of a generation, not his albums (though the distinction is subtle as Dylan's albums had everything to do with establishing that voice). So I changed the subject of the sentence from "Dylan's albums" to "Dylan" to make it work. (I got the job.) Which brings us to the dreaded "dangling modifier."

A "modifier" is a phrase or clause that describes something. The modifier in this case (actually a modifying phrase) is "the voice of a generation." This phrase is underpinned by a noun — "voice" — acting as an adjective that longs to modify "Dylan," the rightful subject of the sentence. It's "dangling" because Dylan is nowhere to be found (if Dylan were present, "the voice of a generation" would attach itself to him and thus cease to dangle). So "the voice of a generation" gloms onto "Dylan's albums" "because it's there," to quote mountain climber George Mallory. Any subject in a storm, right?

More recently, I came across this, a dangling "participle":

"Attempting to make the last 'collapsible' lifeboat usable, the rush of water swept him away."

It was Second Officer Herbert Lightoller who was attempting to make the last collapsible lifeboat usable, not the rush of water. (FYI: He survived.)

"Attempting" is the (dangling) participle. A participle, according to Grammar Girl, is "a verb that acts like an adjective." G.G. goes on to illuminate: "The present participle form of a verb usually ends with 'ing.' For example ... '[H]ike' is a verb, and 'hiking' is the present participle. To use the verb, you could say, 'Let's hike the trail.' To use the participle, you could say, 'Don't forget your hiking boots.' 'Hiking,' the participle, tells you what kind of boots I want you to bring." "Hiking," in other words," is the participle that modifies "boots."

Even the most gifted scribe can find himself dangling. Take Simon Schama. The story of Herbert Lightoller appeared in Schama's gripping Newsweek account of the sinking of the Titanic. Frankly, whoever copyedited that piece is just as guilty as Schama, and as the dangling participle there is far more obvious than, say, the dangling modifier in that Dylan sentence, shame on them both.

I've copyedited more text than I can shake a stick at since encountering "the voice of a generation, Dylan's albums," so I can say with some authority that dangling modifiers (of which dangling participles are a subset) are a very popular grammatical error — and frequently a source of mirth. Here's a trio of knee-slappers, courtesy of Write Tight Site:

  • Rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought out some shriveled potatoes.
  • Sitting in the freezer for three hours, my mother served the ice cream cake roll.
  • At the age of 12, her father passed away.

(In specifying dangling modifiers, as in life, family is everything.)

Foul play aside, you can assume that the writer's brother did not rot in the cellar for weeks, nor did his mother sit in the freezer for three hours. And it stands to reason that the "her" whose father passed away was not born before said father was 12 years old. But asking the reader to "do the math," however simple, to grasp the intended meaning of the sentence is the antithesis of effective writing; "you know what I meant" is not a defense for dangling.

Thus I ask you to tread carefully when you find yourself deploying a participle. If you write something like "Formulating the company's style guide," please do not follow it with something like "the Oxford-comma issue would finally be settled"; instead, follow it with something like "she'd finally settle the Oxford-comma issue" — for a grand total of "Formulating the company's style guide, she'd finally settle the Oxford-comma issue." ("She," a proper subject, would therefore be the one doing the formulating, not the Oxford-comma issue.)

Likewise, I must implore you to remain ever watchful for the sometimes-harder-to-spot non-participle dangling modifier. I'd even go so far as to point out that "dangling" is a slang term for "hanged."

Seen a dangling howler? Do us the kindness of letting us know in the comments below. Don't leave us hanging!

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 28th 2012, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
"Frequently" a source of mirth? Perhaps, but I'd say rather than only when the non-intended reading is funny do we even notice these. They are so common and so easy to write that there must be an underlying mechanism of syntax that permits them - probably some sort of notional subject. We rarely have any trouble assigning "the proper subject" or "fixing" the error. Not that I'm trying to defend them or say they needn't be fixed, but I find it interesting that they can be understood so easily.
Thursday June 28th 2012, 8:39 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Well written addition. I enjoyed the piece.
We would like to read more of these types of explanations
Thursday June 28th 2012, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Basically, I am not a writer! I am a doctor. Doctors that took time to learn to write are a rare species!
The "dangling issue" is only one of the prodigeous number of errors I find as I edit, edit, edit my own autobiographical book, An Interesting Child.
So, thanks for the heads up!
By the time I finish the 12th edition, my book may be worthy of publication.
Thursday June 28th 2012, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Please write us a humorous article about then-than errors. I see much more confusion with these simple words than I do with danglers. My point being that I would rather read about that then this.
Thursday June 28th 2012, 12:56 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Gotta love those danglers! Most often they are at the beginning of the sentence, but not always. An example: "I saw the full moon last night, walking my dog around the block."

The Happy Quibbler
Monday July 2nd 2012, 12:00 AM
Comment by: Steve V.
Man, there's a lot to remember in the English language! *sighing* But thank you grammarians, I'll make a note of it; don't wanna be the writer who makes copyeditors guffaw...
Monday July 2nd 2012, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Us old country bumpkins write the way we and our neighbors talk. Sometimes local slang tells the real story to those most interested better than the perfectionist grammarian.

Those two sentences, most likely, are not punctuated correctly and have improperly placed phrases. But, the local genre would have no trouble understanding and agreeing with me.

Don't get me wrong, though. I respect the value of proper usage and the standard rules. I've forgotten, perhaps I didn't really learn to begin with, all the rules my teachers tried to teach us. I didn't practice writing nor did I communicate often with those people who were careful to use proper grammar. Those people I worked with used ain't, cain't, gimme, etc. and those habits stuck.

That is why I attempt to get my grand kids to read a variety of literature that isn't littered with improper spelling and enunciation. Gramma nails my hyde quite often for setting bad example in my conversation with the kids.
Monday July 9th 2012, 3:28 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
As a copy editor for research scientists, I often encounter and fix dangling modifiers, dangling participles, and any other words or phrases left dangling with no hope of resolution (until they land on my desk). I never mind: they keep me busy and employed. However, when I'm listening to NPR, where I used to imagine that the best and the brightest in journalism plied their trade, I cringe each time someone reads a glaringly incorrect sentence (e.g., after winning five Olympic medals, the Heisman Trophy didn’t seem that important [imagine that Trophy, winning all those medals!]). I'm sorry to say that this kind of writing has become common, not only on NPR, but in most newspapers, magazines, and books that I read. Thus, no matter what I read, the little editor inside my head is always at work. Then I begin to wonder: do editors no longer bother to correct this error or do they no longer even recognize it as such?

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