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Author Topic: Dealing with annoying English grammar errors (2nd in a series of 14)  (Read 124 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 10, 2017, 01:07:56 AM »

This the second in a series of 14 essays on what I consider as the most annoying English grammar errors. It is running consecutively here in the Forum from November 7, 2017 every Tuesday and Friday until December 22.

2 – The Havoc That Dangling Modifiers Do

In the first of this series, I listed footloose modifiers No.1 among the 10 grammar errors that annoy me most when they end up in print, and I dissected what I thought was a particularly disturbing example of a misplaced modifier. This time I am dissecting two similarly disturbing specimens of the second type of footloose modifiers—the dangling modifier.


A dangling modifier is, of course, a descriptive word or phrase for something that isn’t made clear in the sentence, often making that sentence illogical. Take this dangler that I came across sometime ago in a provincial newspaper’s Internet edition: “Marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use, the only known black market source of ketamine is via the illicit diversion of supplies from manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and even veterinary clinics.”

In that sentence, the modifying phrase just can’t seem to find a proper word or phrase to modify. The nearest possible subject that the modifying phrase “marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use” can modify is the noun phrase “black market source of ketamine,” but this gives rise to a recursive, nonsensical notion. (Work it out in your mind.) Upon closer scrutiny, of course, we find that the true subject of that phrase is the noun “ketamine” alone, but we are still left with the problem of reconstructing the sentence to get rid of its nasty dangler.

After at least several tries, we should be able to mentally come up with this dangle-free sentence: “The only known black market source of ketamine, which is marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use, is the illicit diversion of supplies from manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and even veterinary clinics.” By that time, though, we probably would have already lost our appetite for reading the rest of the news story.

Not all dangling modifiers occur at the beginning of sentences; they can wreak semantic havoc from the tail end of sentences as well. Consider the dangler in this recent front-page photo caption of a leading daily: “The military is now pouring hundreds of Marines into the area where 14 Marines were killed, 10 of them mutilated, to run after the barbaric perpetrators.”

Now, the troubling question that immediately comes to mind is this: What’s the phrase “to run after the barbaric perpetrators” doing in that sentence? It seems to modify any of the two phrases that refer to the slain Marines, but that’s semantically and logically impossible. Again, after so much cerebral effort, we come to the conclusion that “to run after the barbaric perpetrators” should be modifying “hundreds of marines” instead, as in this dangle-free construction of that sentence: “The military is now pouring hundreds of Marines into Basilan to run after the brutal killers of their 14 comrades, 10 of whom were mutilated.”

(By the way, I thought that “barbaric perpetrators” was perhaps too emotional and unjournalistic a description, so I wasn’t able to resist changing it to the more circumspect “brutal killers.”)

As to squinting modifiers, take a look at the two sets of illustrations above that I found in the literature about them. I haven’t come across an annoying but sufficiently instructive specimen in the major domestic media outlets lately, so for the moment I’m offering as a specimen the same remarkable squinter—one from a mobile phone service print ad—that I dissected in my English-usage column sometime ago: “‘A PC in every home’ is what Bill Gates envisioned as a fresh college dropout.” Here, “as a fresh college dropout” meets the criterion of a squinting modifier: a modifier so ambiguously placed in the sentence that it “squints”—meaning that it can be construed to modify two separate, distinct words or phrases in that sentence.

Try to find ways of getting rid of that squint and, if you feel like it, e-mail them to me.

1. “Mya's iPhone was lost while she was running to the subway.”
2. “While I was reading a book, the cat jumped onto my lap.”

This essay, 2nd of a series of 14, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the August 6, 2007 of The Manila Times. It subsequently formed part of the book The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors, ©2008 by the author, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

(Next: Squinting Modifiers)      Tuesday, November 14, 2017
« Last Edit: November 13, 2017, 10:13:34 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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