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Home > Publications > Quill > Dangling modifiers: A copy editor’s nightmare


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Dangling modifiers: A copy editor’s nightmare

By Paula LaRocque

A film critic wrote that a movie at an area theater reminded him of a Bogart flick he’d seen with Lauren Bacall.

You think? I don’t. Whoever his companion might have been when he saw that Bogart movie, I bet it wasn’t Bacall.

It’s not common to see dangling modifiers that obvious — and that amusing — in newspapers. But it happens. A writer at a metropolitan daily once began her column with the words: “While walking downtown, the trees were in bloom.”

I remember a police reporter’s description of a guy who must have been having a bad hair day: “The suspect was described as about 30, white and of medium height, with long dark hair weighing about 150 pounds.”

Somewhere along the line, I read of a woman who went deer hunting with her husband and was proud that she “shot a fine buck as well as her husband.” Another: “Organ donations from the living reached a record high last year, outnumbering donors who are dead for the first time.”

Usually, dangling modifiers in media writing are subtler — and less fun. At their subtle best, though, danglers still confuse readers, making them work to glean the writer’s meaning.

A dangling or misplaced modifier is a group of words that don’t connect with what they modify, either because a word or words are left out, or because they are too far from what they modify:

l They said the chairman has the determination to tackle any problem that arises in a systematic and effective manner.

l A colorful character, Hunt’s celebrity linked Dallas to oil in much the same way as Microsoft’s Bill Gates tied Seattle to technology.

l For today, Wednesday, and maybe the rest of the week, airborne soot may pose a health risk to children, the elderly and anyone with asthma or other lung conditions in Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield and Licking counties.

In each of those newspaper passages, words or phrases are misplaced so that they modify the wrong element in the sentence. In the first of the three examples, the words “systematic and effective manner” seem to apply to how a problem arises, when they should apply to the act of tackling: They said the chairman has the determination to tackle in a systematic and effective manner any problem that arises.

In the second example, it is Hunt’s celebrity, rather than Hunt himself, that seems to be “a colorful character.” Undangled: Hunt is a colorful character whose celebrity linked Dallas to oil in much the same way as Microsoft’s Bill Gates tied Seattle to technology.

In the third example, the words “in Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, and Licking counties” are misplaced. They apply not to “lung conditions,” but to “airborne soot”: For today, Wednesday, and maybe the rest of the week, airborne soot in Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, and Licking counties may pose a health risk to children, the elderly, and anyone with asthma or other lung conditions.

As you can see from the above, dangling modifiers can dangle from any part of the sentence: “Apparently tossed from a car window, the dog sniffed at what was left of a half-eaten pizza.”

Obviously, it was not the dog, but the pizza, that was tossed from a car window.

The dangler in that case appears at the sentence beginning: “apparently tossed from a car window.”

But in the following example, the dangler appears later in the sentence: “Witnesses said the cop hit the boy with the nightstick several times.” In that case, the nightstick seems to belong to the boy. The sentence would be clearer if it were written: “Witnesses said the cop hit the boy several times with his nightstick.”

The best defense against the dangling modifier is to read our work aloud. If we’ve crafted a sentence that says something we didn’t intend, chances are good we’ll catch the error if we hear it.

So we might write that the dog sitter was “in the habit of walking dogs in an abbreviated halter top.” But if we hear those words, we’ll probably also hear that it’s the dogs who are skimpily attired — rather than the dog sitter.


Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing, available at www.marionstreetpress.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble. E-mail plarocque@sbcglobal.net.

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