Hanging by a thread

Photo courtesy of grammarmagic.wordpress.com

Photo courtesy of grammarmagic.wordpress.com

When I think of dangling modifiers. I think of a mountain climber on a cliff. His gloved hands grasp loosely on the crude rocks above him. His feet keep him hoisted and stable. But only for now. At any moment, any slip of the hand or cracking rock could send him plummeting down into the foggy oblivion below.

That’s what dangling modifiers do to a sentence. They put into question the rigidity and soundness of the rest of the sentence. Sentences like “Hungry, the leftover pizza was devoured,” or “Rummaging in her giant handbag, the sunglasses escaped detection” give the average joe quick laughs and a grammatician nightmares.  

The phrases “hungry” or “rummaging in her giant handbag” do not describe clearly defined subjects. Who was hungry? Who was rummaging in her giant handbag? Answering these questions is the first step toward fixing dangling modifiers and the first step toward not falling off the mountain cliff.

But it’s obvious, some say. No one is actually going to think that the pizza was hungry or that the sunglasses rummaged. So why fix it? Why not leave it and call it “style”?

Those who believe that grammar restricts stylistic creativity are missing the point. Many view grammar as structures that people must navigate around, things that narrow the possible courses of action. But a more accurate depiction is grammar as the foundation to a building. The foundation is necessary for strength, but whatever is above the building can be as creative as desired.

Fixing dangling modifiers is important because it puts the subject back at the helm of a sentence. Imagine a ship without a captain, the White House without the president and The Beatles without John Lennon. Without them, the whole becomes less of what it once was, having lost an integral part of itself.

Indeed, grammar wasn’t created to limit style. It was created so that style itself could be more clear and understandable.