Big mistake. Honestly, I don’t know what came over me. There I was, perusing the online edition of The Guardian, looking through the books section, when I chanced upon an interview with Sharon Olds, a poet apparently. (I’d never heard of her and still know nothing about her, for reasons about to become clear.) This was the piece’s intro:
Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice.
Normally I switch off copyediting me when I’m reading for pleasure, but that second sentence activated copyediting me and put him on grammar alert. What we had here, people, was a living, breathing dangler. Not only that, but this baby was big. And so I made the silly mistake of adding a smart-arse comment at the bottom of the article.
So I’m going to have to wait till I’m 70 to see the young woman in Sharon Olds, since that’s what the second sentence of the article says. Will it be worth the wait? I’ll get back about it in 25 years’ time.
I naively imagined the writer of the article, Kate Kellaway, or a Guardian sub-editor would see the comment and amend the second sentence. What actually happened was I got a good pillorying – in a polite Guardian arts pages sort of way, of course. Someone called Cathy replied with:
How boring can some people get? A marvellous interview, some really subtle and complex ideas shining through, and then your response.
Frankly, she had a point. I was being a bit of a bore. Making the comment was out of character for me. I’m not one of those people who think civilization is in jeopardy when I see a misplaced apostrophe on the menu board at the local pub. In my defence I wasn’t drawing attention to something trivial, such as a typo, but to a dangler, front and centre, that made unfortunate, unintended sense. Anyway, it was too late. I’d said what I’d said, and I had to live with the consequences. It wasn’t long before Cathy’s comment had accumulated over 20 recommends, and I felt like a social pariah. It was as if I was languishing in the village stocks, and each recommend was a rotten tomato splatting me in the face. I hit back with:
You’re making the point behind my comment. The problem with bad grammar is that it makes you focus on the grammar and not the content. Some people won’t be able to read past that second sentence. I couldn’t, so I’m never going to know whether it was an interesting piece or not.
But the tomatoes kept splatting me in the face, and next someone using an alias that was a combination of numbers and letters wandered over to have a go at me:
But it doesn’t say what you think it says at all. Failure to understand non-simple sentence structures says more about your failure as a reader than the writer’s failure.
Ouch. Not only was I boring, but I was also failing as a reader, something that, were it true, would be fatal in my line of work, as would an inability to understand non-simple sentence structures, which I’m guessing is a non-simple way of saying complicated sentences. I’m more of a go-for-the-ball-and-not-the-man kind of guy, and I came back with an explanation of the problem:
It doesn’t intend to say what I know it says, more like. What you have at the beginning of the sentence is a dangling modifying phrase. The subject of the sentence, ‘you’, comes after the initial comma, and that’s what the modifying phrase modifies in grammar terms – ‘you’. If you’d like to refute my analysis, please go ahead, but do so in grammar terms. As a professional editor, I ‘succeed’ at reading all the time, thanks.
I braced myself for more criticism and wondered what would happen if the situation spiralled out of control. What if clicking Recommend on Cathy’s comment became the cool thing to do, sweeping the Internet with the viral virility of the ‘Gangnam Style’ video and even spreading to the remote village where I live? If that happened, would the guy with the farm on the corner ever sell me fresh eggs again? Or would he instead pelt me with them the next time I approached him with an empty egg box in hand?
Fortunately, it was at this point that Billy Mills, a contributor to The Guardian, and a poet and publisher to boot, got my back.
Spot on; if ‘At 70’ was replaced by ‘Today’ the ambiguity would disappear and everyone would see that it qualified ‘you’, as it is, we know what it means to mean, and so make a mental adjustment.
And once Mr Mills had spoken, the public pelting came to an end.
So what did I learn from the experience? Well, I’ve returned to my default position of avoiding pointing out these kinds of errors, even if they are big ones. If I was really bothered by the dangler, I should’ve sent a private message about it to the subs’ desk at The Guardian, which was what I wanted to do originally, but because I couldn’t find an email address for the subs, I went ahead and made a comment in public. Kate Kellaway’s article also reminded me how easy it is for writers to go into print with danglers. I should know, because I’ve done so myself. If the online edition of The Times didn’t operate behind a paywall these days, I’d sheepishly provide a link showing an article I wrote a while back in which I erred, too. In the first sentence. What was that about throwing stones and people living in glass houses? I can’t say I remember exactly.
Danglers are discussed a lot by people offering grammar advice, but I haven’t seen them talked about specifically from the perspective of writing and editing genre fiction – and they need to be. Also, though I’m sure you authors have been listening to the advice out there telling you to avoid writing danglers, you’re not being completely successful in following it, because – believe me – they’re getting through. I would say there are danglers in eight or nine out of every ten manuscripts I see. I sometimes work on novels that have already been copy-edited once or twice, and I usually see danglers in those, too, so these critters have a habit of holding on.
I suspect that one reason danglers get there in the first place is that they are a feature of spoken English, and there’s a tendency for authors with a conversational style of writing to use them in their fiction without realising. (By the way, has anyone ever picked you up for using a dangler in conversation? No, I didn’t think so. Wait a moment; who said yes? Did someone say yes?) Imagine, for example, a guy called Tony is telling a mate what he did Friday night in Highbury, and he says the following five minutes into the conversation:
Walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.
Euston, we have a dangler. Tony, the person going home by foot, isn’t mentioned where he should be, after the comma – which means the phrase Walking home from the pub is dangling, since strictly speaking the sentence doesn’t tell us who was walking home from the pub. But it sounds like a natural thing to say, no? And we get the intended meaning, even though the syntax is a bit wonky. Look at how wordy the following corrections are in comparison:
As I was walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.
Walking home from the pub, I was struck by the fact I should’ve asked her for her phone number.
These sentences are also more formal in register than the original, and they sound like writing rather than chat. All the essential scene-setting information was actually contained in the original opening phrase, Walking home from the pub. The guy who’s listening to Tony knows Tony’s talking about himself, because that’s what he’s been doing for the past five minutes, so who was walking home from the pub doesn’t need to be established again.
Have I just gone and justified the use of a dangler? I think I have. However, I’m talking about danglers in speech rather than writing, so this discussion isn’t relevant to fiction, right? Well, no, it is. Since dialogue is a big feature of fiction, if the reality is that people speak in danglery sentences, then maybe danglers have a right to make it into print in dialogue. Maybe they should even be allowed in narration in some cases. Perhaps you’re writing a book using first-person point of view and your narrator has a colloquial, conversational way of expressing himself or herself, and danglers are right for that person’s voice.
It’s at this point that I hold up my hands, smile and say that the decision whether to include danglers in your novel is a creative one for you, the author, and I’m not getting involved. I suspect, however, that most – if not all – of the writers who submit manuscripts with danglers in them simply don’t realise they are there and didn’t consciously decide to include them for creative reasons. You would have to be brave to intentionally allow danglers in your novel, because unless you can engineer a way to make it clear to readers you know you’re using them, you risk losing credibility in the eyes of people like that pedantic middle-aged guy who comments on the Guardian website – though everyone says that dude’s boring and incapable of grasping the non-simple, so maybe you shouldn’t care what he thinks.
Before you search your manuscript for danglers, you need to know what they look like. Kate Kellaway’s second sentence is a good starting point, because it betrays a couple of traits frequently shared by sentences containing danglers in both journalism and fiction.
At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice.
‘At 70’ is a modifying phrase – a prepositional phrase, to be precise – and it’s supposed to be giving information about Olds. But it isn’t doing that. Instead, it’s modifying you, a pronoun referring to the readers of the article. In this case, the thing the modifying phrase should modify, Olds, is given, just not given in the right place; it should come after the comma. If the sentence were rewritten and the opening phrase retained, it would start like this:
At 70, Olds . . .
At 70, she . . .
In this instance it’s not possible to rewrite the sentence that way and get in all the ideas Kellaway wants to. (Try it yourself; you’ll see what I mean.) But that’s not our concern here. Sometimes the noun a dangling phrase is supposed to be modifying isn’t present in the sentence at all. Here’s an example:
At 70 years old, life is good.
This sounds like something someone might say, doesn’t it? It is, however, a dangler. Life isn’t 70 years old; it’s Sharon Olds who is that age – and she’s not mentioned. Life, on the other hand, is billions of years old, apparently. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – At 70 and At 70 years old, in the cases above – and the noun it’s supposed to modify, which is either not where it should be in order to be read as the thing being modified, or simply not present at all. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to.
I said that Kellaway’s dangler displays classic traits. Well, while you people have been drinking red wine and joking and laughing and frolicking on a sandy beach with a Dalmatian – which is how I imagine you’ve been spending the winter while I’ve been holed up in a cold farmhouse on Gozo without hot water or central heating, wearing a beanie and five layers of woollen clothing – I went the extra mile for you by scouring fiction manuscripts I’ve edited for danglers, stripping out 40 in total and placing them side by side in a separate document. Before I was forced to burn said document in order to provide myself with a fleeting moment of warmth, I analysed the sentences in which the danglers occurred and looked for common features. (Okay, 40 danglers isn’t a huge sample, but I think it’s large enough to allow me to harvest some useful information.) I’m going to share the fruits of that research with you here.
Out of the 40, two danglers came at the end of a sentence. (I’m going to put the subject of danglers at the ends of sentences aside for the moment. I’ll cover it in the next blog, since I want to clear up another common issue I see in manuscripts at the same time.) The vast majority of danglers in my sample – 33 of the remaining 38 – were initial modifying phrases followed by a comma followed by . . . Well, it was what they weren’t followed by that was the issue: the noun they were supposed to modify wasn’t there. So, over 80 percent of the danglers in the sample came in sentences with this structure at the beginning:
Initial modifying phrase + comma + something other than the thing that’s supposed to be modified by the modifying phrase
Types of Dangling Phrase
In ten sentences, representing 25 percent of the total number of sentences in the sample, the dangling initial modifying phrase was a prepositional phrase – a phrase beginning with a preposition – similar to Kate Kellaway’s one. Here’s a variation on the theme:
With her shiny hair and gentle voice, you can see the young woman in Sharon Olds.
At and with are common opening prepositions in prepositional phrases that have been stood up by the noun they were supposed to be on a date with. Just over half the danglers in the sample were dangling participles (21 out of 40), and most of these (13) were present participles. Dangling participles are the big-brand danglers that everyone talks about, and my sample demonstrated they do represent a real menace in genre fiction, so let’s take a good look at them. But first I’d better go back a step, since some writers won’t be familiar with what participles look like.
There are two types of participles: past participles and present participles. Let’s deal with the first kind first. If you study a chart for English verbs of the kind used for teaching English to foreigners, you will see that each verb has three forms given: the infinitive, the past-simple-tense form, and the past participle. For example:
to riot, rioted, rioted
Notice the past participle of this particular verb has an -ed ending. Most past participles do, but some don’t – for example, known, fallen and built. Here are a couple of sentences that begin with past participles:
Built in 1967, Dunbad Prison was a concrete monstrosity.
Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King, John Dudley was the cons’ drugs dealer of choice.
Built in 1967 and Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King are called participial phrases. Let’s intentionally create a dangler using the first sentence as our raw material.
Built in 1967, no one would choose to do time in the concrete monstrosity that was Dunbad Prison.
The sentence is saying that no one was built in 1967, which doesn’t make sense. The thing that was built in 1967, Dunbad Prison, is adrift from its correct position, after the comma.
The results of my little research venture tentatively suggest that dangling past participles like the one above are less common in the genre fiction I edit than are dangling present participles. I imagine that’s because the use of past participles is characteristic of an information-giving style of writing that’s more the norm in, say, journalism. Anyway, let’s move on to looking at present participles. Here’s a correctly formed sentence that starts with a participial phrase with a present participle in it:
Raising the fire axe high above his head, John blocked out any thoughts about the consequences of what he was about to do to his cellmate.
Raising is our present participle. It’s formed by adding -ing to the bare infinitive form of the verb – that’s the infinitive without to. (Here’s the math, as it were: to raise minus to equals raise, plus -ing equals raising, with the e erased.) If you’re scratching your head and wondering how raising can be called a present participle when it’s being used here to talk about something that supposedly happened in the past, keep scratching that head. Present participles can be used to talk about past, present and future events, as can past participles. Both terms are a little misleading, but you’ve got to work with what you’re given, even if that makes everything more non-simple than it might otherwise be. Here’s a danglerfication, as it were, of our example sentence:
Raising the fire axe high above his head, John’s thoughts were everywhere but on the consequences of what he was about to do.
That can’t be right, since John raised the axe above his head, not his thoughts. The guy may be a psycho and about to murder his cellmate – where did he find a fire axe in prison, by the way? Who writes this stuff? – but he’s not a psychic psycho with a talent for psychokinesis. Though a preposition will always be the first word in a prepositional phrase, a participle won’t always be the first word in a participial phrase. The following is a participial phrase, too, for instance:
While raising the fire axe high above his head . . .
Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler I
You shouldn’t waste time and energy subjecting gerunds to interrogation in the hope of exposing them as dangling present participles; gerunds don’t dangle. The reason you might find yourself asking gerunds searching questions about their status is that both present participles and gerunds have the same spelling. The difference between them is in function: gerunds work as nouns. Look at this:
Murdering fellow prisoners diminishes your chances of getting parole.
Murdering is our gerund and it heads a gerund phrase, Murdering fellow prisoners, that is the subject of the sentence. A way to distinguish between present participles on the one hand, and lone gerunds and gerunds that head gerund phrases on the other, is to replace the word ending in -ing in question with it, ignore the extra words in the cases where you are probing what might be a gerund phrase, and see if what you’re left with makes sense. If it does, then you’ve struck a gerund. For instance, in the example above we end up with:
It diminishes your chances of getting parole.
Nothing to see here, then, and we can move along.
Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler II
There’s a class of participles called absolute participles, and these can’t dangle. You are more likely to see absolute participles in dry forms of writing, such as news reports, corporate writing and academic texts, than you are in fiction, but they do crop up. Here are some examples of absolute participles: assuming, allowing, concerning, considering, given and providing. Here are a couple in action:
Considering how poorly equipped Dunbad Prison is to meet the needs of a modern penal system, it is scandalous that the government continues to support the establishment.
Given the high rate of recidivism among prisoners who serve custodial sentences at institutions such as Dunbad Prison, the question naturally arises, does prison work?
Well, I hope I haven’t managed to over-non-simplify the subject. There are other kinds of danglers you should look out for – dangling infinitives and dangling appositives, for example – but I’ve covered what I believe are the most common ones in fiction.
Right, then. Next on the agenda for me: what else can I burn to provide heat? Actually, you know what? Now that I’m subscribing to Oxford Dictionaries Online, that copy of the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelf does suddenly look redundant and more like a heat-giving brick of fuel than a source of spellings and definitions . . .
1. Make a creative decision about whether you should allow danglers in dialogue and even, perhaps, narration.
2. Should you decide not to include danglers, incorporate dangler patrols into your self-editing process.
3. Use the information I’ve given – and will give in my next blog – to spot them. Be on high alert when you come across a sentence that starts with a prepositional phrase or a participial phrase. Often the thing it modifies should come after the first comma, so be on the look out in particular for the following structures at the beginnings of sentences:
prepositional phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify
participial phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify
4. Don’t concern yourself with gerunds and absolute participles. They can’t dangle.
5. Whenever you do come across a dangler, rewrite the sentence in which it occurs. I’m not going to try to tell you how to do that. You’re the artist in this relationship. Just make sure you don’t give birth to another bouncing dangler baby in the process, okay?
Assuming I continue to survive the cold this winter, I’ll post the next part of this blog in about ten days. Should there be a subject that bugs you while you’re self-editing your novel, send me a message with details. I may be able to cover the topic in a future post.
Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, an Enigma machine, body language, etc.