Despite the significant advantage that writers enjoy—the advantage of having time for revision in advance of “performing” for the public— I increasingly encounter flawed writing. And I am amazed to find serious errors even in supposedly prestigious publications—especially newspapers, magazines, and websites—that can well afford to employ professional editors.
Here are three examples of just one type of common writing error:
- After two hours on the operating table, his surgeon, Dan Coit, lifted the tumor from his abdomen.” (“Is the Cure for Cancer Inside You?” The New York Times Magazine, December 23, 2012.)
Okay, this is a pretty amazing surgeon if he can lift a tumour from his own abdomen, especially after two hours on the operating table, as the sentence indicates he has done.
- “Standing at the threshold of a new era of faith it was these prophetic words that called upon the Church to speak to the world with a renewed sense of purpose aimed toward achieving the peace that Christ promised.” (“A Catholic Reflection on HIV/AIDS and the Call to Love,” in The Huffington Post Religion Blog December 5, 2012.)
So who exactly was standing at the threshold of a new era of faith? “It”? “these prophetic words”? “the Church”? According to the “logic” of this sentence, the answer is “these prophetic words.”
- “And, as someone who believes in the power of the written word, even in the 21st century, one message of Seeds of Fiction is to remind us that books can be powerful weapons, as The Comedians certainly was.” (“Travels with Graham,” a review by Jon Sweeney of Seeds of Fiction by Bernard Diederich, in America: The National Catholic Review. February 4, 2013.)
Who is the mysterious “someone” at the beginning of this sentence? Is it Graham Greene? Is it Bernard Diederich? Is it Jon Sweeney? According to the “logic” of this sentence, it is “one message.”
The three examples above illustrate one of the most common, and to the careful reader, one of the most distracting, errors made by writers, even the so-called professionals: the misplaced or “dangling” modifier. A careful re-reading of the articles in which these errors appeared would have resulted in their being corrected and blessed clarity restored.
Here is an example of this error that is perhaps a little easier to recognize and understand:
- Walking down the street after the movie, a city bus nearly ran my girlfriend and me over.
The careful reader will do a double take when she reads this sentence because it is telling us that the bus was walking down the street after it had watched a movie.
Here are a couple of ways we can fix it
- As my girlfriend and I were walking down the street after the movie, a city bus nearly ran us over.
- Walking down the street after the movie, my girlfriend and I were nearly run over by a city bus.
Here is the rule: the implied subject (in the case of our simple example, above, it would be my girlfriend and I) of a modifying phrase appearing at the beginning of a sentence must match the actual subject of the main clause which follows. If the implied subject of the phrase and the subject of the main clause are different, it will be necessary to change one or the other.
In the first corrected sentence, we changed the modifying phrase into a clause, which has an actual subject rather than an implied one, thus clearing up the confusion over who is actually doing what. In the second corrected sentence we changed the subject of the main clause so that it agrees with the implied subject of the modifying phrase.
So now let’s see if we can fix the sentences in the examples above.
- After the patient had spent two hours on the operating table, his surgeon, Dan Coit, lifted the tumor from his abdomen.
(Naming the patient would sharpen the clarity of this sentence:
- After Tom Reddick had spent two hours on the operating table, his surgeon, Dan Coit, lifted the tumor from Reddick’s abdomen.)
- As the Church stood upon the threshold of a new era of faith, it was these prophetic words that called upon it to speak to the world with a renewed sense of purpose aimed toward achieving the peace that Christ promised.
(A change of word order would make this sentence even more effective:
- It was these prophetic words that called upon the Church, as it stood upon the threshold of a new era of faith, to speak to the world with a renewed sense of purpose aimed toward achieving the peace that Christ promised.)
We might have to make some contextual assumptions in order to fix the final sentence, but here goes:
- And, as someone who believes in the power of the written word, even in the 21st century, I am convinced that one message of Seeds of Fiction is to remind us that books can be powerful weapons, as The Comedians certainly was.
Here is another type of misplaced modifier, courtesy of a well known magazine:
- Get 21 issues of Macleans for $20 and a bonus gift. Macleans.ca, November 24, 2012.
So…if I want to get my 21 issues of this iconic Canadian publication, I need to send them twenty bucks AND give them a bonus gift. Well, what should I buy them? Perhaps one hour of free editorial service would be appropriate.
Of course, the sentence should read:
- Get 21 issues of Macleans, and a bonus gift, for $20.
There are those who will say of the sentences with misplaced modifiers quoted above, “Well, I still know what they are saying.” That may indeed be the case. But think of this: If you hire a contractor to paint your house and come home to find that for one part of house the painter has used a slightly different shade of the colour your requested, it is likely that the difference between the two shades will not only be noticeable; it will also be disturbing. You will not be satisfied if the painter says to you, “You asked for green and I gave you green. Everybody can see that it’s green, so I don’t understand what you are complaining about.”
Natalie Dessay, Derek Jeter, Patrick Chan, and Jamie Oliver have each spent thousands of hours mastering the fundamentals of his or her art in order to be able to exercise the utmost control over the quality of the performance that is offered to an audience. Should the writer be any different? Only through mastery of language—of the correct structure and placement of the phrase, the clause, the sentence, for example—can the writer hope to achieve the level of performance that is guaranteed to thrill an audience.
Recognizing and correcting the dreaded dangling modifier is one small but essential element of that mastery.
Image #1: “Misplaced Modifier” by crazytales562. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Image #2: “Flip side of misplaced modifier” by crazytales562. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.