The Compulsive Copyeditor

April 25, 2015

Dangling Slowly in the Wind

All right, all right. I get the message:

Charged with involuntary manslaughter, a jury ultimately acquitted the film’s director, John Landis, of the charges.

It’s past time to tackle the issue of dangling participles, appositives, and what-have-you. The only reason I haven’t done it yet is that I actually don’t know the terminology. This is embarrassing and prevents me from being a certified expert. I live and breathe grammar, but I don’t really know what its parts are called. I can conjugate and decline with the best of them, but I can’t remember which is the operation you do on verbs and which on nouns. I know that a dangling participle is a phrase beginning with the -ed or -ing form of a verb that is not properly attached to the subject it’s meant to modify. But what’s a dangling appositive? Like the judge with the porn, I know it when I see it. I know it’s wrong, and I know why, but I don’t know it by name. I had to Google it. This is a dangling appositive:

A lawyer by training, her intelligence was keen, her commitment to health care reform and poverty unwavering.

Here’s another one:

Known for his sound character, military service, and political reforms, his passing came as a shock nationwide.

OK, millennials (my favorite straw man and woman, shorthand for the hapless victims of successive generations of progressive education, fading out like Xeroxes of Xeroxes), here’s a simple rule that will keep you from ever dangling a participle or an appositive again:

A participial or appositive phrase is like a baby duck: IT FOLLOWS THE FIRST THING IT SEES.

In the case of dangling participles, not knowing this rule often leads to unintentionally comical results, such as the above example of the jury charged with involuntary manslaughter, or yesterday’s example of the homeless men on their way to see Les Miz. The dangler simply attaches itself to the first thing it sees, like one of Konrad Lorenz‘s baby geese: [jeez, I had to copyedit the quote to make it fit for polite company!]

What he’s best known for and [what] led him to become internationally recognized was his classic experiment with newly hatched goslings (baby geese). For this experiment, Lorenz [divided] the eggs from the same goose into two randomly picked groups. Group A hatched in a natural environment and immediately began to follow mother goose around. Group B hatched in an incubator and the first living being they saw was Konrad Lorenz. So they immediately began to follow Mama Lorenz around… All the time.

In the case of the dangling appositive, the poor thing often has nothing to follow. The subject of the sentence has gone AWOL, and there’s no one to take its place. (In the above examples, you’d really have to work at the misreading “her intelligence was a lawyer by training” or “his passing was known for his sound character.”) The appositive just stands there, bewildered, like a teenager in a foreign train station, a follower without a leader and without marching orders. The grammar maven who provided the example also provides “one possible fix”:

A lawyer by training, she had a keen intelligence . . .

Or, in the second case,

Known for his sound character, military service, and political reforms, Beau Biden was mourned across a nation shocked by his passing.

In the opening example, the participial phrase can only be saved from the noose by a resort to the passive voice:

Charged with involuntary manslaughter, the film’s director, John Landis, was ultimately acquitted of the charges by a jury.

You might choose to rewrite those sentences differently But the point is, participial and appositive phrases both follow the very first thing they see when they turn the corner of the comma. So make sure it is what you want them to follow, the subject you intended them to describe. /sermon

Advertisements

3 Comments »

  1. “Dangling participles” will forever remind me of “The Dangle Lounge” which was the name of a strip club in downtown Madison, Wisconsin — back before such things were forbidden by edict. I never went there (it closed before I turned 18) but the humorous name stuck with me.

    Speaking of participles, I have a grammar question for you: as an editor, what’s the usage difference between the simple past tense and the present perfect tense? For example: “I did that” vs. “I have done that.” The Germans seem to use the former in writing and the latter in spoken conversation.

    Comment by chickelit — April 25, 2015 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

    • Yes, the Germans use the participle as the past tense (I do it myself when speaking German). I’m not conversant enough to be aware of the difference you describe between speaking and writing. I’d have to live there for at least 6 weeks.

      In English . . . “I did that” means once and done with, “I have done that” could mean more than once and ongoing.

      But what’s the difference between “She left for the day” and “She has left for the day”? Is there any?

      Comment by amba12 — April 25, 2015 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  2. […] SPEAKING and WRITING. We do not observe the same rules in speaking as in writing, nor should we. The critically endangered rule on dangling participles and dangling appositives — avoid them, because they are logically ambiguous and misleading — does not apply to […]

    Pingback by For true grammar nerds only | The Compulsive Copyeditor — August 23, 2015 @ 2:16 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: