Roger That: A few words on writing

July 20, 2012

Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing. 

Beware the Dangling Modifier

By Roger Shirley

Thinking about this blog post, the lead suddenly became clear.

Hey, there's Roger Shirley!

Well, there you go. The lead, of course, was not thinking about the blog post, although that is what the sentence says thanks to the dangling modifier (or in this case, more specifically, the dangling participle).

As an editor, the dangling modifier is one of the most common mistakes I see in copy produced by young writers. Oops, there it is again. (Who knew a dangling modifier could be an editor?)

Interestingly, I have found that people do not like to talk about dangling modifiers. I think the term itself makes them feel uncomfortable. Or the topic makes them have a flashback to a high school English class with a teacher speaking in monotone about future perfect tense. Many people will swear that they know what dangling modifiers are and don’t need to hear a lecture about them; then they will proceed to sprinkle them into their otherwise well-written copy.

The reason that so many young writers get caught dangling a modifier is that young writers just love to start sentences off with dependent clauses. “As an expert in the field of brain surgery, MP&F would position the chief of medical staff as a source for health care reporters.” No! We are not brain surgeons. We are PR professionals.

There’s nothing wrong with changing up the flow of sentences by occasionally dropping in dependent clauses, but they should always be considered red flags flapping in the grammatical wind, warning of an impending dangler.

Another minefield for dangling or misplaced modifiers is a sentence written in the passive voice – which is also a favorite vice of many young writers. Here’s one taken from an actual newspaper article: “Paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists have been stolen by an armed gang from a museum in Zurich.” Really? Why would a museum feel the need to have an armed gang? That just seems like an invitation for an art heist.

I’ve mentioned that dangling or misplacing modifiers are common mistakes made by young writers, which is true; but they do not discriminate on the basis of age. They will bite even wily veterans who get a little sloppy with their copy.

There are tons of resources on the Web to help writers understand what dangling modifiers are and how to avoid them. So I won’t go on about it. I will say, however, that diligence should never sleep when it comes to writing. There are just too many danglers out there, lurking in the shadows.

And after making that point, you have probably heard enough.

No, wait. Who made the point?

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2 Responses to “Roger That: A few words on writing”

  1. Jeff Wilson Says:

    Take it from someone who knows; Roger Shirley is a great editor.

  2. Bill Says:

    Laughed out loud at the one about the art heist. One of my favorites: “The policemen wiped their necks on the steps of the county courthouse.”


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