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Front-loading, dangling, and dangerous modifiers

Running down the road, the briefcase slipped from Anna's hand and burst open on the pavement.

After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete.

Having been firmly closed and locked, Alice's visit to the pub was fruitless.

Elaborately frilled and tucked, John tossed the quilt onto the bed.

Blue, orange and pink, the dog ate the latest designs.

As a former Mayor of London, I thought it would be great to interview Ken Livingstone.

Over 4000 years old, the Queen enjoyed her walk around the ruins.

No matter what horrors they have inflicted, the BBC can't be seen to insult any group.

Once recognized, a writer or editor can easily fix the dangler.

Have you spotted what's going on with these sentences? It isn't the briefcase that ran down the road, and it isn't the British Team Officials who fell in the practice and suffered concussion. It's not Alice's visit to the pub which is locked, John isn't elaborately frilled and tucked, and the dog isn't blue, orange and pink. Ken Livingstone is the only former Mayor of London, (so he must be interviewing himself), the Queen is not 4000 years old, the BBC was actually talking about ISIS not itself, and it's not only recognised writers who can fix danglers.

And that last one's the giveaway. All of these sentences are suffering from what are are called "dangling modifiers". Most of them involve participles (the -ed or -ing form of a verb) but some are adjectives or other descriptive clauses. The result varies from the merely confused and confusing, to the downright comical, and all of them would get you into trouble from a grammar stickler or word-nerd.

The trouble starts when the writer feels the need to vary a sentence's structure away from the fundamental English syntax of subject + main verb + object: The archaeologist stared at the idol. Normally, this "main clause" is followed by "modifiers" - any extra things you want to say about it - in what's sometimes called a dependent clause, because it depends on having a main clause to hang on to: The archaeologist stared at the idol, which was twenty foot high and made entirely of granite.

But you might want to shift things round, so we get the modifying stuff first as an introductory chunk, and then the main part of the sentence. Fine - variety's a good thing. But there's an important and basic rule that when you have an introductory chunk before the main clause of a sentence then that introductory bit must be modifying the grammatical subject of the main clause. So you need to be careful, because you can so easily get nonsense: Twenty foot high and made entirely of granite, the archaeologist stared at the idol. That's an archaeologist even Harrison Ford might be scared of. Unpicking it, we can see that Twenty foot high and made entirely of granite, is about the idol, but the subject of the main clause the archaeologist stared at the idol is the archaeologist. 

So why are these idiotic constructions so common? You might be trying to vary the construction of your sentences because reading aloud, say, has shown up that they're all a bit samey. Or you might be trying to "front-load" them: to get the exciting bit in at the start. This is something that journalists are actually taught to do, but it's a dangerous game if you don't know what you're doing. If the only interesting bit in a dull story about the Queen is the fact that the ruins are very old, the temptation is to front-load the sentence - but look what happened! Many of us might spot that idiocy and re-jig, but this one is subtler:

After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete

is a genuine BBC example from the Sochi Olympics. It's got in a muddle because the journalist has front-loaded the sentence with the most dramatic thing: the fall and the concussion. In strict fact, the most important bit is She may not compete, and After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, she may not compete would make perfect sense, because the main clause of the sentence is she may not compete, and the modifier falling etc., is about her.

But, in trying to fit in the third part of the story - that it's the team officials who have decided this - the writer has walked into a trap, because the subject + main verb of the sentence has changed to team officials say . So the introductory falling... suffering now apply to them. Must be tough, being a team official!

Someone - I wish I could remember who, but it was a distinguished journalist, maybe even Alistair Cooke - said that you can sum up the entire 20th Century history of the fourth estate in the shift from sentences like Inspector Lestrade is investigating the murder of Joe Bloggs, a local pimp and father of three, towards front-loaded sentences such as The murder of local pimp and father of three Joe Bloggs is being investigated by Inspector Lestrade. Which is all very well, even if it does lead to sentences with a great lump of stuff between subject (the murder) and main verb (is being investigated) the beginning, and then a clunky, passive-voiced main clause. But in your determination to get the drama in at the beginning, it's all to easy to realise too late that you've said - and printed - something like this: A local pimp and father of three, Inspector Lestrade is investigating the murder of Joe Bloggs. But if you do say that, Mr Lestrade will be whizzing a libel suit your way before you can say "robert maxwell".

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