Flash Card: Please Refrain From Dangling

"The voice of a generation, Dylan's albums hit the airwaves at a time when protest songs could actually influence the national discourse."

I was confronted by this sentence when I sat down to take a copyediting test that would determine whether or not I got a job as an assistant editor on a biographical reference series.

I understood that it was Dylan himself who was the voice of a generation, not his albums (though the distinction is subtle as Dylan's albums had everything to do with establishing that voice). So I changed the subject of the sentence from "Dylan's albums" to "Dylan" to make it work. (I got the job.) Which brings us to the dreaded "dangling modifier."

A "modifier" is a phrase or clause that describes something. The modifier in this case (actually a modifying phrase) is "the voice of a generation." This phrase is underpinned by a noun — "voice" — acting as an adjective that longs to modify "Dylan," the rightful subject of the sentence. It's "dangling" because Dylan is nowhere to be found (if Dylan were present, "the voice of a generation" would attach itself to him and thus cease to dangle). So "the voice of a generation" gloms onto "Dylan's albums" "because it's there," to quote mountain climber George Mallory. Any subject in a storm, right?

More recently, I came across this, a dangling "participle":

"Attempting to make the last 'collapsible' lifeboat usable, the rush of water swept him away." It was Second Officer Herbert Lightoller who was attempting to make the last collapsible lifeboat usable, not the rush of water. (FYI: He survived.)

Even the most gifted scribe can find himself dangling.

"Attempting" is the (dangling) participle. A participle, according to Grammar Girl, is "a verb that acts like an adjective." G.G. goes on to illuminate: "The present participle form of a verb usually ends with 'ing.' For example ... '[H]ike' is a verb, and 'hiking' is the present participle. To use the verb, you could say, 'Let's hike the trail.' To use the participle, you could say, 'Don't forget your hiking boots.' 'Hiking,' the participle, tells you what kind of boots I want you to bring." "Hiking," in other words," is the participle that modifies "boots."

Even the most gifted scribe can find himself dangling. Take Simon Schama. The story of Herbert Lightoller appeared in Schama's gripping Newsweek account of the sinking of the Titanic. Frankly, whoever copyedited that piece is just as guilty as Schama, and as the dangling participle there is far more obvious than, say, the dangling modifier in that Dylan sentence, shame on them both.

I've copyedited more text than I can shake a stick at since encountering "the voice of a generation, Dylan's albums," so I can say with some authority that dangling modifiers (of which dangling participles are a subset) are a very popular grammatical error — and frequently a source of mirth (reminiscent of the titters known to greet the word "dangling"; see: "the angle of the dangle"). Here's a trio of knee-slappers, courtesy of Write Tight Site:

  • Rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought out some shriveled potatoes.
  • Sitting in the freezer for three hours, my mother served the ice cream cake roll.
  • At the age of 12, her father passed away.

(In specifying dangling modifiers, as in life, family is everything.)

Foul play aside, you can assume that the writer's brother did not rot in the cellar for weeks, nor did his mother sit in the freezer for three hours. And it stands to reason that the "her" whose father passed away was not born before said father was 12 years old. But asking the reader to "do the math," however simple, to grasp the intended meaning of the sentence is the antithesis of effective writing; "you know what I meant" is not a defense for dangling.

Thus I ask you to tread carefully when you find yourself deploying a participle. If you write something like "Formulating the company's style guide," please do not follow it with something like "the Oxford-comma issue would finally be settled"; instead, follow it with something like "she'd finally settle the Oxford-comma issue" — for a grand total of "Formulating the company's style guide, she'd finally settle the Oxford-comma issue." ("She," a proper subject, would therefore be the one doing the formulating, not the Oxford-comma issue.)

Likewise, I must implore you to remain ever watchful for the sometimes-harder-to-spot non-participle dangling modifier. I'd even go so far as to point out that "dangling" is a slang term for "hanged."

Seen a dangling howler? Do us the kindness of posting it on Editorial Emergency's Facebook page. Don't leave us hanging!