Hurtling Through the Sky, a Baby with Enamel Bottom

How about a little light relief from astronomy? One of the ways I waste my time is recording examples of dangling modifiers, as they are usually called: sentences such as Eric David’s the other day (sorry, Eric): “Coming home this evening from the grocery store with my daughter, the western sky revealed a glorious sight…” It wasn’t the western sky that was coming home, but Eric.

This was a mild and forgivable example; one of the best (that is, worst) turned up yesterday in a Guardian article:

“Born in Christchurch, it was not immediately obvious that he would excel at a word-based game.”

This was about a New Zealander who could speak no French but won the French Scrabble championship. (He learned the French dictionary by heart, without learning the meanings of the words.) It was he, not “it,” that was born in Christchurch, but on top of this almost routine kind of dangling modifier comes the remarkable image of nurses watching as a child emerges from the womb and listening for signs of his proficiency in Scrabble, riddles, or crossword puzzles.

A dangling modifier is a phrase that is intended to describe something else in the sentence, but the something else is not there or is in the wrong position. There are really two types:

– The merely misplaced modifier: an adjectival phrase describing a noun which is in the sentence, but the phrase appears to describe the wrong noun. This is the “Bath for baby with enamel bottom” type.

– The truly unconnected modifier: a phrase, usually adjectival, describing a noun or pronoun that is not expressed or is in the wrong grammatical position. Usually but not always this phrase is at the beginning of the sentence, is quite long, is marked off by a comma, and contains a participle. This is the “Hurtling through the sky he saw a rocket” type. It is called by Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “unattached participle”; but it doesn’t always contain or begin with a participle. It can often be repaired by inserting a few words such as q “it is,” “they were,” “as I was.”

Obviously of the hurtling-through-the-sky type was this from Astronomy magazine:  “Moving rapidly northward, Olbers thought this object was a comet.”

Just a few more:

“Attached by a paper clip to a page in her journal, my mum handed me a flier to a barn dance.” (In a novel by a certain popular author, before it received proper editing.)

“At the age of 8, his family moved to Florence.” (Wikipedia article on Galileo.)

“While still an infant, his mother took him to Jordan….”

“Heavier than other types of stone, archaeologists have long suspected that the material was regarded as sacred by Neolithic man.”

“Although dismissed by the majority as a blight on the urban landscape, Mr. Montague has created a field guide [to abandoned shopping carts].”

“Rigid in this position, more and more words fell successively upon her ear.” (Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, chapter 35.)

“Designed with visual appeal in mind, the eight contributors and numerous photographers have crafted a delightfully informative history of imperial China.”

“The smog was immediately evident, even arriving at night by shuttle bus from Macedonia.”

“Locked away in the bowels of the National Archives, the government refuses to make them public.”

“Though still under construction, Meyer is making his catalogue already available.” (International Comet Quarterly.)

“Like other cultures around the world, meteors attracted the attention of Native Americans.” (Gary Kronk in Meteor News. Could be mended by changing “Like” to “As with.”)

“When excavated by the University of New Mexico, researchers discovered a series of stunning wall murals.” (Archaeoastronomy.)

“Originally called “Quinobin” or “meandering” by the Indians, Prince Charles later renamed the river after himself in 1615.” (Also an example of double redundancy: “later renamed… in 1615.”)

“When viewed through the supplied glasses, you can perceive the third dimension of height.” (Sky & Telescope.)

“Touted as “the ultimate gift for the fashion conscious environmentalist,” Mr. LaShier has sold more than 5,000 “Rubber Necker” ties.”

“Designed to produce conditions that mimic the birth of the universe, researchers from all over the world will use the SSC [Superconducting Supercollider] to reveal the most fundamental secrets of matter and energy.”

“Eight Red Arrows pilots took to the skies in their first public performance since the death of one of their team-mates today.” There are two adverbial phrases, the long “since the death of one of their team-mates” and the short “today,” and the mistake consists of having “today” in the wrong place.

Misplacing phrases about time can give surreal time-warping effects:

“Putin’s poll ratings have slipped since he announced that he planned to return to the Kremlin two months ago.”

I’ve eased off from collecting every dangling modifier I see, which is why most of my examples are old ones from the Christian Science Monitor, a great newspaper that no longer exists. Back then, I once woke from a dream in which I saw a headline:

“Traveling at 205 Miles Per Hour, Drunk Driver Hits Tornado”

7 thoughts on “Hurtling Through the Sky, a Baby with Enamel Bottom”

  1. no word about blue moon??!! I’m a little disappointed. Need I take off from here?

  2. Reading Guy’s blog entry, my comments to these posts clearly warrant more careful proofreading to avoid these dangling modifiers!

  3. Aw man! You wanna talk about this?! I’ve got plenty more of errors worse than this.
    I cringe when I hear folks say, “between you and I” just to make themselves sound more ‘proper’. And even,,, and I already know you don’t begin a sentence with ‘and’, however, to hear even newscasters saying, “The reason is ….because”… Ugh! After all the cruel lashings i’d gotten as kid to learn good grammar, she’s in the kitchen by the way baking cookies, what have I got to prove for it? So, to where does it all come?
    but getting back to astronomy, for which I mainly come here….
    BTW, I saw venus last nite in my crappy binoculars that don’t even focus on the same point and had to slightly out of focus the left side to reveal venus as the crescent I was expecting to see. Now I’m convinced that when I looked a few years ago for the Ashen Light, I DID see it. I need a better pair of binoculars.

  4. I take off two points for these, or should I say “When correcting dangling modifier errors, my students have two points taken off their essay.”

    1. Good to hear from Terry, who, as it happens, announced only three hours ago a story he has just published in “Bitter Southerner”. Terry, is that an online magazine? And do you want to give a link to your story here?

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