Friday, 27 March 2015

a hanging offence

I had always thought that I had been given a thorough grounding in the complexities of English grammar, at a time when English grammar was still being taught to ten-year-old schoolchildren (the 1950s), but it wasn’t until I worked as a magazine subeditor, thirty years later, that I came across the term ‘dangling modifier’ or the offence that the phrase represents. Since I became aware of the problem, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the reason I hadn’t previously been aware was that the problem hadn’t existed half a century ago. It is a modern phenomenon.

So, what is a dangling modifier? The following sentence, from an article about the writer Somerset Maugham on the BBC News website, provides a perfect example:
Born William Somerset Maugham at the British Embassy in Paris in January 1874, Maugham’s mother Edith died of tuberculosis when he was eight.
It is possible to argue that the intended meaning can be apprehended without difficulty, so what’s the problem? But look again at the way the sentence has been constructed. The subject of the main verb in the sentence is the noun phrase ‘Maugham’s mother Edith’, yet nothing preceding this phrase describes, or modifies, it. ‘Born William Somerset Maugham at the British Embassy in Paris in January 1874’ is actually a description of Maugham himself, not his mother, so it has been left dangling, modifying nothing. This is my suggested rewording:
William Somerset Maugham was born at the British Embassy in Paris in January 1874. His mother Edith died of tuberculosis when he was eight.
If you still think that this is a lot of fuss over nothing of real importance, then consider the following sentence, also from the BBC News website, which is part of a report on an illegal drug that is having a devastating effect on South Africa:
Easily accessible from dealers around the shops of the township in Delmas in Mpumalanga province, the group she is with is smoking in public view.
In this case, the modifier ‘Easily accessible from dealers around the shops of the township in Delmas in Mpumalanga province’ clearly refers to the illegal drug itself, but this is not even mentioned elsewhere in the sentence. The way the sentence has been constructed, it is the noun phrase ‘the group she is with’ that is (unintentionally) being modified.

Slipshod. It’s not a word that one hears much nowadays, but it is exactly the word I would use to describe such sentence structure. Language changes, of course, but changes that are driven by the ignorance of the perpetrators of such change are to be resisted as strongly as possible if our language is not to degenerate into incoherence.


  1. Replies
    1. Not at all. Any sentence that requires someone to read it more than once to get the intended meaning is a poor sentence that should be rewritten. Or would you prefer the general drift in language towards vagueness?

  2. The examples above are not hard to understand. Personally, I'm not bothered nor should you be. However, when I heard “the train is calling at all stations except.....” that got on my tits.

    1. I take your point about not being bothered Oliver. This is a hangover from my days as a book editor, when my guiding principle was that you shouldn’t make it hard for the reader. A dangling modifier makes the reader pause momentarily while they work out what is going on.

    2. LoL- for sure.
      From that perspective I can't agree more. I sometimes get stuck at work whilst putting emails together. I tend to restructure an email at least twice until I have made a template.

    3. Bravo! Unfortunately, not everyone is prepared to take that much trouble.


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