Friday, March 31, 2006

Modifying Danglers

There was an amusing article in Slate a couple of weeks ago debunking those news items that say "So-and-so costs the U.S. economy some-odd billion dollars a year." The piece was inspired by a recent claim that workplace interruptions like e-mail messages, IMs, and chatty co-workers cost the economy $588 billion a year. That got me wondering what sort of damage the economy is sustaining from the time lost by copy editors' efforts to fix dangling modifiers.

In the world of New York magazine copy editing, dangling modifiers form the basis for something like a sport. CEs are always on the hunt for them, and when they're spotted there's always a surge of excitement, and a desire to share the find with the rest of the department (and whoever else may care, though, really, no one else does). Sometimes it's unclear whether a particular example is authentic, and the whole department will huddle around someone's monitor to make a ruling. (As all CEs know, dangling modifiers are know as danglers, for short. One CE friend of mine likes to tell about the time he was in the office bathroom washing his hands, and one of his colleagues walked up to the urinal, unzipped, and said, "Oh, I wanted to ask you--is this a dangler?....")

Back to concerns about the economy: The main problem with dangling modifiers is that fixing them is often time-consuming. And in many cases it's doubtful that the fix has improved the copy in any practical way--it's often no more readable, no clearer, and, finally and despair-inducingly, no more grammatical. Because the thing is, for many examples of what are called dangling modifiers, it's not clear that there is even a grammatical problem.

The classic dangling modifier is the patently ridiculous type of sentence you find mostly in grammar books under "dangling participle." Here's an example cited by Bergen and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage: "Having eaten our lunch, the bus went on to Chicago." Most readers can easily see that this seems to be saying that the bus ate lunch. That's because when you see an introductory participle phrase like "having eaten our lunch," you expect to encounter the word it's trying to modify (presumably "we" in this case) somewhere, and preferably immediately following the phrase (something like "Having eaten our lunch, we boarded the bus and set out for Chicago"). Everyone agrees there are major problems with this type of dangling modifier.

At the other end of the spectrum are danglers that are deemed acceptable by most authorities. In the sentence "Considering how hated Belichick was in Cleveland, it's incredible that another owner would want him as head coach," the phrase starting with "considering" is technically a dangling modifier, because it doesn't modify the word that it ought to ("it") or any other word in the sentence. But Garner's Modern American Usage, in which this sentence is cited, says this kind of thing is perfectly fine. (I know there are copy editors out there who haven't gotten that message yet. Once Bryan A. Garner permits something, though, it's time to let go of your quibbles.)

It's unfortunate that it's even necessary to point out that these are acceptable. But we live in a world in which the prevailing attitude toward danglers is one of extreme intolerance, and the result is an atmosphere of Draconian repression. Here's an example of a perfectly clear, succinct, readable, unambiguous, and non-risible sentence that nonetheless is forbidden under the current regime: "After years of being obligated to attend Knicks games, my interest went from faux to genuine." "Sorry," the copy editor finds himself saying, as if against his will (because who really wants to bother wasting time with this), "but 'my interest' cannot be the subject of the sentence, because the opening phrase wants to modify 'I.' It's not 'my interest' that was obligated to attend; it was 'I.' " (Actually, he doesn't say all this, he just says "That's a dangler!")

But this is how the writer wrote it, and most likely more than one editor read it and found it just fine. And look at it: Do you really think that the dangling-ness of this modifier causes any problems whatsoever? And yet when it gets to the copy editor it has to be changed, and thus ensues a back and forth in which the CE will either come up with a fix himself or ask the editor to, and the editor and/or the writer will like the CE's fix or not, or will question the CE's sanity or not for insisting that it be fixed, and, when the dust settles, the final product may end up being less felicitous than the original.


At 3:40 AM, Blogger Lunar Brogue said...

A craving for diesel: "Having eaten its lunch, the bus went on to Chicago."

At 9:44 PM, Blogger ankh said...

Rewrite, still a bit ugly: "After years of being obligated to attend to [pay attention at] Knicks games, my interest went ...."

Tactic: I try to rewrite preserving the subject the author used, changing the rest of the sentence to fit that.

I include a standard rewrite as an alternative. Showing both redrafts is an attempt to find both sentences in the collision and extricate them from the wreckage.

At 2:24 AM, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Say, Tongue-Tied, what ever happened to this wonderful blog? I hope everything's OK on your end.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

Hi Peter, thanks for the kind words. Everything's okay--I just got caught up in some other stuff lately. I hope to get back to the blog soon.


Post a Comment

<< Home