Wilbers: Keep those modifiers from just hanging there

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2009 - 10:09 PM

"So what's a dangling modifier, anyway?"

His hat was tipped low over his forehead, his eyes obscured by his dark shades. He fiddled with his glass of whiskey and glanced at the door. Jersey was tough, tough as they came.

"Like most grammatical errors," I said, "it's a matter of relationship."

"You mean like between me and my friend Tommy?" he asked, his voice as raspy as an alligator's back.

"More like between you and your ex-wife," I said. "A dangling modifier is a broken relationship. When a sentence begins with a modifying phrase, the word or phrase after the comma should be the thing modified."

He popped a peanut into his mouth.

"For example?"

"'After years of studying language, their sentences flow as though they were created without effort,'" I said.

"I don't see the problem," he said, "and I ain't got all night."

I chose my words carefully.

"The first part of the sentence, the modifying phrase, doesn't connect sensibly with the second part. The 'sentences' didn't study language; the writers did."

"So fix it already."

"'After years of studying language, they write sentences that flow as though they were created without effort.' Now the modifying phrase doesn't dangle; it connects with 'they.'"

"I see," he said. He tapped his finger on the bar for another drink. "So if I said, 'Walking down the street, a black limo stopped for me,' I'd be wrong, and if I said, 'Walking down the street, I signaled to my man in the black limo,' I'd be correct."

"Exactly."

"So what about my friend Tommy?"

"Tommy?"

"You said most grammatical errors are a matter of relationship. Tommy is a close friend."

"Then your relationship to Tommy is like the bond between a subject and a verb, which is the strongest grammatical relationship in language."

"You messing with me?"

"Of course not, Jersey. I wouldn't mess with you."

"So what's wrong with Tommy?"

"Nothing, as long as you remember Tommy is only one person and singular subjects take singular verbs. For example, you wouldn't connect a singular subject with a plural verb, as in 'The network of lies are confusing' when it should be 'The network of lies is confusing.'"

"You saying subjects and verbs are like Tommy and me?"

"Yes, they're like close friends, and if you don't let them get too far apart, your sentences will read better."

"Give me a bad example."

"'The party thrown by Frankie when Johnny was in town last Saturday night to collect on some overdue debts was fun.'"

"Fix it."

"'Frankie threw a fun party when Johnny was in town last Saturday night to collect on some overdue debts.'"

"How about my doll?"

"Your doll?"

"My sweetie."

"Well, that sounds like a possessive relationship, as in 'my friends' hideout' as opposed to 'My friends hideout.' Just don't forget your apostrophe."

"You kiddin'?" said Jersey. "I never leave home without it."

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