Training Bulletin Issue 77
Dangling modifiers: a peril of hasty writing
The wellness app for women you've never heard of could be a game-changer!
This was one of the headlines from an on-line newsletter a colleague of mine recently received. This was her reaction: “Really? Do they also have one for the women I have heard of?”
Now, I'm pretty sure the writer did not send that headline out so that we could all laugh at it, so what were they trying to say? Probably something more like this:
Never heard of this wellness app for women? It could be a game changer!
Why did they go wrong? They did not consider the perils of the dreaded dangling modifier.
That sounds vaguely rude
Seriously, it's not. It's a genuine grammatical expression; I didn't make it up. And it's worth knowing a bit about dangling and misplaced modifiers so you don't also inadvertently include them in your writing. They are what happens when it's not clear to the reader which part of a sentence another bit's referring to, which makes your writing unclear, ambiguous or unintentionally funny. It's one thing to have your readers laughing with you but you don't want them laughing at you, which is most likely what happened to the writers of the following dire examples:
- The facility comprises a large wooden structure with fireplace, tables, chairs, kitchen, deck and barbecue pit that can hold eighty people.
- Police representatives this morning discussed the problems of holding in jail unconscious people suspected of being drunk with London councillors.
- Presenting conflicting results, readers were confused by the report.
Those are definitely a bit confusing…
In each case, there is a moment when the reader goes “Ok, wait, what? No, can't be that, what you must mean is…”
- They aren't going to barbecue eighty people at once, what are they talking about? Oh, maybe the large wooden structure? Or the actual facility can hold eighty people?
- Wow, those London councillors really know how to party! Or were the discussions with London councillors? Why do I have to work it out here?
- They aren't the only ones.
So it's something to do with the word order, is it?
Yes, it is. When we read something, we tend to interpret words that are closer together in the sentence as being closer together in meaning. This means that a sentence that is grammatically correct, as far as the grammar checker is concerned, can still be confusing or ambiguous to the reader, who experiences a moment of confusion then has to work out what the writer meant. Do that to your reader a few times and they will give up on you.
How not to dangle
Unfortunately, that's not easy. This kind of error can be very difficult to see because the writer often doesn't realise they've done it. As they know what they meant to say, to them there is no problem and the sentence makes perfect sense.
When you proofread, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors can be easier to spot than something that needs an actual sense check of the meaning. To do this well, you need to dissect every sentence with an extremely critical mind set of, “Is there any way somebody sufficiently determined to do so could misinterpret this? And how can I make it impossible for them to do so?” Imagine your poor sentence in the witness box, being grilled by an extremely aggressive prosecutor.
|What you said||Did you mean…|
|He only paid for the meal.||He paid for the meal only, and nothing else.|
Only he and nobody else paid for the meal.
|Customers who complain often are bad.||Customers who complain are frequently but not universally bad.|
Customers who frequently complain are always bad.
|The team presented a campaign to the client called 'A New Start'.||The team presented a campaign to the client who was called 'A New Start.'|
The team presented a campaign called 'A New Start' to the client.
Two tips to help you avoid this sort of problem:
- Have somebody sense check your document who is not familiar with the content. They won't have the context to fill in the gaps so any logic errors should be more obvious to them.
- Read your document backwards, but sentence by sentence, not word by word. This helps you to evaluate each sentence in its own right rather than in the context of previous information.
For more advice on identifying problems like these, take a look at our course Perfect your Editing & Proofreading
This gives loads of advice on how to edit and proofread, understanding the difference between the two and the importance of each, along with lots of hands-on exercises to practise everything we cover.
If you feel it would also be a good idea to write in a style that makes problems less likely in the first place, we also offer Brush Up Your English!
This covers the basics of good grammar and punctuation, and will help make your writing clear, concise and free of some of the most common problems in written English.
Contact us on , or call +44(0)1235 60 30 22 if you'd like to discuss what we can offer.