Author Topic: Retrospective: A very serious case of a dangling subordinate clause  (Read 11329 times)

Joe Carillo

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A long time U.S.-based Forum member, Jonathan F. Valdez, sent me sometime ago this very interesting note about a grammatically dubious sentence construction in an American magazine (quoted here verbatim):

“Hi Joe,

“Cleaning up the garage, I browsed some magazines and came across this sentence in an article, “Platon’s Portraits,” in Esquire Magazine’s May 2004 edition:

“‘Though he’s a Greek who grew up in London, the iconic photographs in Platon’s first book, Platon’s Republic (Phaidon, $60), are a veritable primer on American culture. We asked the photographer to reflect on a few memorable subjects.’

“Something seems amiss. Am I right?”

I would like to share with readers my reply to Jonathan:

Yes, you’re right; there’s not only one but two grammatical things awfully amiss in that sentence—and both are fatal to its semantics.

The first grammatical flaw is that in the first sentence, the subordinate clause “though he’s a Greek who grew up in London” is a seriously dangling modifying clause. Note that because of faulty positioning, that clause just hangs there without modifying anything. Although it’s adjacent to the noun phrase “the iconic photographs in Platon’s first book,” it can’t logically modify that noun phrase. That clause should logically be modifying the noun “Platon” as its referent subject, but can’t do so because it is misplaced.

The second grammatical flaw in that sentence is that it really has no valid subject. Its logical subject is obviously the noun “Platon,” but it can’t function as such because it’s in the possessive form “Platon’s first book.” Grammatically, the noun “Platon” can only function as a subject or doer of the action if it is in its subjective or nominative form, “Platon.”

That sentence therefore needs a total overhaul to correct these two fatal grammatical flaws.

Here’s my suggested fix:

Though he’s a Greek who grew up in London, Platon has come up with a first book, Platon’s Republic (Phaidon, $60), whose iconic photographs are a veritable primer on American culture. We asked the photographer to reflect on a few memorable subjects.”

This time everything is in its proper place performing its legitimate grammatical job. The subordinate clause “though he’s a Greek who grew up in London” now logically modifies “Platon” as its legitimate subject. And the noun “Platon” now does the action of coming up with his first book, “Platon’s Republic,” which in turn is now the logical subject of the relative modifying clause “whose iconic photographs are a veritable primer on American culture.”


Here’s another interesting grammar question, this time from Forum member royljc:

“Hi, Joe,

“I’m having a problem defining these two phrases: ‘all over town’ and ‘all over the town.’ Are they the same or different?”

Here’s my reply to royljc:

The phrases “all over town” and “all over the town” mean different things.

“All over town” can literally mean “in many places in town,” as in “The building inspections were done all over town,” or figuratively mean “known to many” or “widely known,” as in “The nasty gossip about the philandering high official that was aired on TV was all over town before the day was over.” In both cases, “all over town” signifies presence in many places in town but not everywhere in it.

On the other hand, “all over the town” means physically everywhere in the town without exception, as in “Snow fell all over the town throughout the night, blanketing everything in sight with eight inches of dirty-white precipitate.”


Finally, here’s a short take from My Media English Watch:

The lead to a Yahoo! news story about the recent bus bombing in Makati City reads as follows (italicizations mine):

“At least four people were killed and scores were injured in a bus explosion along EDSA in Makati City.”

The word “scores” here is grammatically and factually wrong. A “score” means 20, so the plural “scores” means at least two scores or 40. The injured actually totaled only 13, which is less than even just one score.

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in a February 2011 issue of The Manila Times, © 2011 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.