Getting all dangled up
Call them murdered modifiers, muddied modifiers, massacred modifiers – or, perhaps most accurate, misunderstood modifiers. They all describe those danged dangling modifiers.
Doing the twist
Creating them is easy: Just twist the syntax out of shape. You don’t even have to try. In fact, that’s how they come about. It’s called carelessness – better yet, mindlessness. How else would yours truly have succeeded in formulating so many over the years, before he learned how to screw his head on straight?
Dangling modifiers are not hard to find. Just about anybody who writes about anything steps into their trap: advertising copywriters, government bureaucrats, letter-to-the-editor writers, investment advisers – you name it.
Here’s one by a retired Navy admiral whom President Ronald Reagan appointed as the Navy’s first competition advocate general. And if you have any idea what that is, or was, please let me know. Here’s an excerpt from an essay the ex-admiral wrote for a syndicated newspaper service:
A pain in the …
“As a retired Navy flag officer who was tasked with ensuring the Navy got the best deals and best quality for its dollar, it pains me to see resources that could be helping our troops being wasted.”
What’s wrong with that? It’s as awkward as a young sailor at a brothel. “As a retired Navy flag officer blah blah blah, it … .” The officer is not “it.” What needed to follow the officer’s description of himself was “I”: As a retired officer tasked with getting the best deals, “I am pained” to see resources wasted. That’s one way of fixing the problem: Use the passive voice.
Another solution is: As a retired officer tasked with getting the best deals, “seeing resources that could be helping our troops being wasted pains me.” Who is seeing resources wasted? The retired officer: As a retired officer, seeing … .
Marching in time
Beating the Bush
A similar example is from this letter-to-the-editor in my locale’s daily newspaper. “Having strewn wreckage across the American financial landscape, it is impossible to conceive of a worse president than George W. Bush … .” “It” did not strew financial wreckage. Neither did the letter writer. The culprit is Bush.
How to fix it. That’s about as tough as rectifying the wreckage wrought by George W.’s war in Iraq. Major repair and renovation of the sentence is in order: Having strewn financial wreckage, “George W. Bush did such damage that it’s impossible to conceive of a worse president.” Tricky. Oh, wait, that was the sixth president before him, the one nicknamed “Dick.” The writer may mix his words, but he doesn’t mince them. He ends the sentence about the impossibility of conceiving a worse president by saying: “— that is, of course, unless one has had a major brain injury.” Harsh? Perhaps, but a lot of major brain injuries were incurred in Iraq.
De ja vomit
Stay away from those pedestrians.
Then there’s this one by a stock investment newsletter adviser. Referring to sudden, large-scale dumping of plummeting stocks, he wrote: “This is what’s known on Wall Street as ‘puking up’ your positions. Having seen this happen before, it certainly felt like it.” Excuse me, Mr. Adviser, but “it” didn’t see this happen before. The adviser did.
Another rephrasing is in order: “Having seen this happen before, I certainly felt as though this were a regurgitation.”
Enough of these twists and turns. It certainly feels like – that is, I’m feeling a little nauseated.
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