Author Topic: Are there any circumstances when a modifier can dangle legitimately?  (Read 13961 times)

Joe Carillo

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I received this e-mail from Mr. Roy Kagle (January 10, 2011):

Dear Mr. Carillo:
The Harbrace College Handbook (4th Edition 1956, page 285) mentions two circumstances when a modifier may "dangle" legitimately, to wit:
(1) when the gerund, infinitive or participle (in the subordinate clause) expresses a "general truth," and
(2) when a noun and participle constitute a subordinate clause which is grammatically (and semantically) independent of the rest of the sentence.
I cannot recognize and distinguish between these two exceptions. Would you mind providing me with clearer explanations of these exceptions and with tests for distinguishing between them?
Wouldn't you consider "when the main clause is in the imperative mood" a third exception? Consider the sentence, "After closing the window, shut up and sit down."  In this sentence, the subject is unmentioned but completely understood as the party/parties to whom the command has been directed. 

When the subject is understood, even without being mentioned, a modifier should be allowed to "dangle."  What are your thoughts here?
Are there any other exceptions for the generally proscribed "dangling modifier?"
You seem to have a genius for addressing tough grammatical issues and for imparting your understanding of these matters to other people. Many thanks for helping me with mine.
Roy Kagle

My reply to Roy:

Since I don’t have a copy of the Harbrace College Handbook and have had no opportunity to read its discussion of dangling modifiers, I’m afraid I can’t comment on what it cites as the two grammatical situations when modifiers can dangle legitimately. In the absence of specific examples for those situations, I can’t even fathom why the handbook makes those two exceptions at all and—like you—can’t even distinguish between them. As far as I am concerned, danglers will always be danglers no matter the subject matter and the dangle happens because of a flaw in the positioning of the modifying phrase. That handbook’s special prescriptions about danglers are very intriguing, though, so I would be greatly interested to read them and formally comment on them here in the Forum. Could you possibly send me a scanned copy of the pertinent pages of the book?
You presented the following sentence in the imperative mood as a possible third situation when a modifying phrase may dangle legitimately: “After closing the window, shut up and sit down.” This imperative sentence is, of course, an elliptical construction where the second-person subject “you” has been dropped from the following sentence: “(You) shut up and sit down after closing the window.” What we have here is a simple sentence with a compound predicate (“shut up and sit down”) modified by the prepositional phrase “after closing the window” functioning as an adverbial modifier. There’s really no dangling modifier in this simple sentence; everything is in its proper place. I therefore don’t think that sentences in the imperative mood qualify at all as a grammatical situation when a modifying phrase may dangle legitimately.

For your last question, you asked if there any other exceptions to the proscription against dangling modifiers. I don’t think there should be any exceptions at all; as I said earlier, danglers will always be danglers no matter the subject matter of the sentence and I think it’s foolhardy to be making exceptions to the proscription against them. At any rate, you may want to check out this earlier post of mine in the Forum about misplaced and dangling modifiers. Two chapters of my book English Plain and Simple, “Wrong Place, Wrong Time” and “Rx for Strays, Danglers, and Squinters,” also discuss the problem with dangling modifiers.

« Last Edit: January 12, 2011, 11:05:59 PM by Joe Carillo »