Wooden Legs and Mustaches

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.

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About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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