Don’t fall in love with dangling modifiers

Akeem Lasisi

A major quality of good communication is clarity. You should always speak and write in a way that will make the listener or reader to be able to understand your message with little or no hassles.

Often, using difficult or high-sounding expressions obstructs communication flow. But beyond vocabulary issues, handling some grammatical elements carelessly can also leave the reader of the piece confused. One mistake many make in this regard is courting dangling modifiers. These are modifiers so loosely put in sentences that you do not know which parts of the structures they are working with.

On their own, modifiers form a very important aspect of the English grammar. They are used to define, describe or establish other words or expressions. They include adjectives, adverbs and subordinate clauses. See how useful modifiers can be in the following sentences:

I bought two pens.

The second game was easily won.

She ran fast.

Having finished the work, I decided to play with the dog.

In the first sentence, while two tells us more about pens, in terms of how many were bought, easily says more about won. The adverb, fast, tells us the speed at which he ran, just as , in the last sentence, Having finished the work tells us the time and condition the main action is taking place. That is how beautiful modifiers can be.

Unfortunately, they can become ugly and a threat to good communication when a writer carelessly or lazily handles them. When a modifier is not placed where it is supposed to be or is not clearly linked with the object it is working with, there is trouble for the speaker and the listener. Consider these:

  1. President Buhari can only pardon the embattled military officer.
  2. Having finished the work, the dog started playing with him.

We have cases of dangling modifiers in the above sentences. In the first, we are not sure what the speaker really has in mind. Is it that President Buhari can pardon the officer but can do nothing else or is it that only President Buhari can pardon him – and nobody else can? Obviously, the latter is what the writer has in mind, but the misplacement of the modifier has hurt the communication. The right thing to say is:

Only President Buhari can pardon the embattled military officer.

In the second, who did and finished the job? Is it the man or the dog? As the sentence is constructed, this is not expressly stated. Indeed, it is as if the dog did and finished the work. One can only guess it is the human being that did it. So, the main clause ought to be framed in such a way that will complement the tone set by the modifier:

Having finished the work, the man started playing with the dog.

Here, it is the same person carrying out the actions of doing the work and playing with the animal.

How to avoid dangling modifiers

1.Ensure that the object being modified is present in the clause. Imagine dropping an adjective in a clause without supplying the head (any object it is qualifying or modifying’. It will make no meaning to the reader:

The cowardly

The cowardly what? It is better as The cowardly boy, as in The cowardly boy has gone.

He badly it.

Again, this sounds like a statement from a drunk. He badly what? Perhaps what is meant is He badly needs it.

  1. Place the adjective/adverb close to the noun or verb it qualifies to avoid confusion:

Only James did the job.

James only did the job.

Whoever utters any of those statements must be sure of what he has in mind. If he means Only James – and no one else supported him – did the job, he is right in option one. If he means that all that James did – and nothing else – is the job, the second is valid. But if the intention is different from the construction of the statement, then, there is the problem of dangling modifier.

He did the job sluggishly and went home.

He did the job and sluggishly went home.

The placement of sluggishly is correct in both sentences. But the clauses do not mean the same thing. The first describes how he did the job while the latter states how he walked home. Therefore, the composer of the statement should be sure of what he or she wants to establish. If a writer just mixes the structures, there will be a case of misplaced modifiers.

  1. Keep modifiers that begin with which close to the nouns or pronouns they are modifying. When you fail to do so, you will have the kind of problems we have in the following:

I bought a cup and presented it to him, which is golden.

A cow died in the accident, which was very big.

In the first statement, which is golden is a dangling modifier. Is it the cup or action of presentation that is golden? Since the speaker intended to modify the cup, the adjective or adjectival phrase should be placed close to it:

I bought a golden cup and presented it to him.

As a matter of style, you can also have the statement thus:

I bought a cup – a golden one – and presented it to him.

In A cow died in the accident, which is big, the writer wouldn’t have meant that the accident was big. He is trying to describe the cow but allowed the modifier to dangle. It is better as A big cow died in the accident.

  1. Give the subject established in your introductory phrase or subordinate clause a consistently active role even when you get to the main clause. When you do this, there will be no confusion in terms of who is taking the action:

Pretty and brainy, Sade’s classmates respect her.

Can you detect what is wrong with this sentence? There is a case of dangling modifiers. Who is pretty and brainy referring to? Is it Sade’s classmates or Sade herself? See the correct structures:

Pretty and brainy, Sade commands the respect of her classmates.

Sade’s classmates respect her because she is pretty and brainy.

Consider this case of dangling modifier too:

Having bought a new car, the old one is unattractive.

In this case, the object being modified is not indicated. Or is it the old car that bought the new one? The expression is better as:

Having bought a new car, the man/woman/officer/king (whoever bought it) finds the old one unattractive.

Lastly, consider the evil that dangling modifiers can cause in the sentence below, taken from a story from a reporter. I must confess, the statement came from the memory of one of our senior editors at The PUNCH, Mr. Seth Akintoye, who has been one of the biggest pillars behind our English class.

The NDLEA operatives on Monday arrested a woman at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, carrying cocaine in her private parts, weighing 2.5 kilogrammes.

Now, the question is: which is weighing 2.5 kilogrammes, the cocaine or the woman’s private parts?

Answers to last week’s assignment

  1. Did you see any of the …?

       (a)    File’s (b) file (c) files (d) three file

  1. The man said he … later. (a) would come (b) will come (c) can come (d) is coming
  2. Why are you … him? (a)harassing (b) harrassing

        (a)   harasing (d) harass

Those who got all the answers right

Peter Inyang, Uyo; Omoba Okhumeode, Edo State; Bola Dave-Toye, Lagos; Adewusi James, Oladipo Isaac, Lagos;  Sangodare Ayinla, Shao, Kwara State; Dare Olufade, Owo, Ondo State;  Wole Ogunsade, Imesi-Ile, Ondo State; Ikpemosi James,  Ayo Olukayode, Kogi State; Titus Musa, Abuja; Ademola Adedokun, Kolawole Kareem, Lagos; Aransiola Oluwole, Ekan Meje, Kwara State; Monsuru Azeez, Ibadan; Awe Odunayo, Ihekwoaba Ndidi, Lagos; Esiobu Chris, Anambra State; Ilori Janet, Abeokuta; Raji Alaba, Otan Ayegbaju Osun State; Adewuyi Olamilekan, Olaoye Ifeoluwa, Gift Uturu, Ikenne; James Naomi, Bayelsa;  Patrick Olus, Vdeha Temitope, Bayo Adekoya, Bolatito Ajibade, A. B. Adejumo, Iseyin, Oyo State; Hussainat Dawuda, Lagos; Taiwo Akinyemi, Yinka Lawal, Lawrence Pelumi, Lagos; Ovye Barnabas, Johnson O., Femi Ajele, Sammie Awoselu, Doreen Tom, Adetoun Ayandokun, Toriola Babajide, Ojima Chieojo, Akinyinka Isaac, Moshood Afolabi, Ayandokun Daniel, Okoli Elezabeth, Lagos; Ayoade Adeola, Rotimi Oyedele, Kafar Adwale, Ibadan;  Yekeen Mutiu, Ibadan;  Oyebamiji Ayinde, Lagos; Ganiyat Ola, Happiness Sam, Adesina Olufunmilayo, Samson Ali, Boluwatife Afere, Lagos; Halimat Awonuga,  Sylvanus Aburime, Adebayo Mariam, Lagos;  Damissah Den,  Muyiwa Rotimi, Akodu Mudashiru, Lagos; Bayo Niyi, Akin Gandonu, Abeokuta; Ogoke Vincent, Ado-Ekiti; Morufu Olawuyi, Ibadan; Omisore Tolu, Dada Jomiloju, Olanrewaju Olaitan, Agboworin Fasekeji, Akure; Folaranmi B. A.,  Timothy Olufayo, Ibadan; Adu Olugbenga, Orun-Ekiti; Ken Lawson, Ademuwagun Oluwaseun, Ibadan; Chukwudi Iheanacho, Lagos; Japhlet B. V., Tony Unogu, Lagos; John Adesile, Lagos; Isola Famurewa, Ejemasa Einstein, Adeliyi Oligoke, Lagos;  Taiwo Ekunade, Salami Rafiu, Olugosi Olusola, Fasooto Ademola, Lagos; and Ademolu Adeniyi.

Homework

They have closed down one of the …

  1. (a) center (b) centre (c) centers (d) centres
  2. The bird has … away.

       (a) flowed (b) flied (c) flown (d) flying

  1. Did Man U win the match?

       (a) No it did. (b) No, they didn’t (c) Yes, they didn’t

       (d) No, they can’t

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Source: Punch

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