If You Want Me to Understand the Sentence, Maybe You Could Put the Words in the Right Order.

We have our first requested topic:

My cat is fascinated with dangling modifiers, and pretty much anything else dangling, but my professor, who is normally very much like a cat, is not a fan at all. What are they and who should I believe?

-Osten

Osten makes a good point: dangling modifiers, like other dangling things, are highly attractive to cats. But Grammar Cats know better than the fall for the ploy.

cat with string

WHAT IS THIS MAGICAL BEING?

Dangling modifiers come in many flavors:

Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

You will notice these sentences have one thing in common: each contains a phrase that should be connected to a particular word in the sentence, but is instead connected to something else. That phrase is the dangling modifier. Why dangling? Maybe because it’s not attached to the word it’s supposed to be attached to. Or maybe because that’s kind of how it feels to read it, like you’re dangling.

cat

Like this, but less comfortable.

On the off chance that you see nothing wrong with those example sentences, let me break this down.

First example: Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

Stepping out through the cat door must refer to the cat, because birds do not go through cat doors (the very idea!). But as soon as your eyes slide from the participle phrase, where do they land? On the bird. A reader ignorant in the ways of cats would assume the bird is the one stepping out through the cat door, which is preposterous.

Second example: The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The friends don’t have a bird clamped in their mouths; otherwise why would they be jealous? But even once readers work out that the phrase must refer to the cat, there’s no noun to which we can attach the bird clamped in his mouth. “The cat’s hunting skills” aren’t holding a bird in its (their?) mouth either.

Third example: The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Either the cat or the bird could be chasing its tail. Birds don’t really chase their tails, but how would you know from the sentence?

Fourth example: Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

Tall, dark, and handsome appears to be grammatically attached to the bird. In fact, those ignorant readers might float along, believing it does refer to the bird. This is obviously incorrect, as cats alone can be tall, dark, and handsome, but the sentence doesn’t point the reader in that direction.

cat

Wait! But what if the introductory phrase can only refer to one noun in the sentence, just not the nearest noun?

That’s a good question, cat that’s making a face at me. Let’s say we have a sentence like:

With his furry tail and long whiskers, Mrs. Bird knew Mr. Cat was a fine specimen of god’s greatest creature.

Obviously “furry tail and long whiskers” does not refer to the bird. Furthermore, the “his” in the prepositional phrase tells us that this must refer to the male creature in the sentence, which would be Mr. Cat. Though the phrase is grammatically attached to the bird, deduction can tell us it describes the cat.

So sure, readers can figure it out. But why make them work any harder? If you are an author, your readers’ poor, feeble brains are overtaxed by the broad reach of your vocabulary. If you’re Osten, your professor is annoyed to have been woken from his extensive napping regimen in order to grade a paper. Don’t make them struggle to figure out what you’re talking about.

cat

F minus.

To avoid angering a cat/your professor, restructure the sentence to place the offending phrase closer to what it’s intended to modify. Here are our original examples with the former dangling modifier in bold:

As the cat stepped out through the cat door, he was hit in the face by a bird. (The cat, not the bird, steps through the cat door.)

While chasing his tail, the cat looked at the bird. (Now it’s clearly the cat’s tail, not the bird’s.)

With his tail held high, the cat impressed all the ladies. (The cat’s tail is held high.)

The bird was very impressed by the cat, who was tall, dark, and handsome. (Damn straight.)

cat

Tall, Dark, and Handsome Cat is pleased to meet you.

As these examples illustrate, restructuring a sentence is sometimes either necessary or expedient to avoid other problems. The first example, for instance, could have been revised by simply switching “bird” and “cat,” like so: Stepping out through the cat door, the cat was hit in the face by a bird. But now we have passive voice, and guess what? Cat professors don’t like that either.

cat

Do you have a topic for the Grammar Cat? Send us your questions here.

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