Sometimes a word wanders from the one it should stay close to.
by Andy Scheer
If you’ve ever watched Mary Poppins, you’ve received fair warning about dangling modifiers.
Been a few years since you’ve seen it? Let me remind you of its grammatical humor.
Bert the chimney sweep (Dick Van Dyke) tells Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn), “Speakin’ o’ names, I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.”
“What’s the name of his other leg?” Uncle Albert says.
A classic case of a dangling modifier, when a word or phrase wanders too far from the term it should stay close to—and attaches itself to a stranger—with appropriate results.
Until recently, in all my years of editing, I’d never caught a full-grown wild one, a dangler the likes of a leg named Smith. Sure, I’d caught my share of textbook examples:
- Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
- Walking down Main Street, the trees were beautiful.
- I saw the trailer peeking through the window.
Mildly amusing and in need of rewriting, but nothing worthy of Bert and Uncle Albert. Finally, a few months ago, editing a fiction manuscript, I caught a whopper:
A receptionist escorted them to the office of the canal security director, a poised man with a thin mustache named Madrid.
What were his sideburns named?
Andy Scheer now works as a freelance book editor. He recently served as editor-in-chief for the Christian Writer Guild and editorial director for BelieversPress.