Dangling by a Thread

Misplaced modifiers can confuse and amuse

“After beating Jankovic in 60 minutes in the semifinals, Stosur’s parents and two brothers flew in from Australia to watch the final in person,” a sports story said.

Gee, it seems unfair to let Stosur’s parents play Jankovic in the first place–it’s two against one!

In the second place, isn’t that a “dangler”?

Yes it is, and a classic groaner at that.

“Danglers” are also known as “dangling participles,” the participle being a verb ending in “ing.”* But more than participles can dangle, as in “Born in Manhattan, his family soon moved to Rye.”

So let’s call the broad category “danglers,” and define them as phrases that modify the wrong things.

How to spot them and fix them?

Patricia T. O’Conner has one great way in her book Woe Is I. And while it applies specifically to participles, it can be applied to all “danglers”:

“Always suspect an ing word of dangling if it’s near the front of the sentence; consider it guilty until proved innocent. To find the culprit, ask yourself whodunit. Who’s doing the walking, talking, singing, or whatever?”

In the first example, who’s doing the “beating”? Obviously not “Stosur’s parents.” The “who” has to be the next person or thing mentioned, or the “ing” phrase dangles in space.

Here’s how The Associated Press Stylebook describes danglers:

“Dangling: Taking our seats, the game started. (Taking does not refer to the subject, game, nor to any other word in the sentence.)

“Correct: Taking our seats, we watched the opening of the game. (Taking refers to we, the subject of the sentence.)”

One easy way of seeing if something is a “dangler” is to take the suspect phrase and move it after the next person or thing that appears. In the first example, that would make the sentence begin “Stosur’s parents, after beating Jankovic in 60 minutes in the semifinals …” In the second example, it would be “His family, born in Manhattan …” While that could be true, it’s probably not what the writer intended.

It’s a little trickier if the phrase isn’t at the beginning of the sentence: “A recess was called after arguing the case for four hours.” But O’Conner’s rule still works: Who’s doing the “arguing”? The only possible noun available is “recess,” and, last we checked, recesses can’t argue. In that case, the person or thing “arguing” isn’t obvious, or visible, and you need to identify the subject: “After the lawyers had argued the case for four hours, a recess was called.” You’ll notice that the participle was replaced, too.

If you try to think of the subject of each phrase, you’re less likely to find yourself dangling in midair. And your readers will be anchored, too.

*Careful! Not all words ending in “ing” are participles; some are gerunds, or verbs that act as nouns, as in “Dangling can lead to confusion.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.