Exercice de Style:


In an entry at The Rumpus, “The Inevitability of Fashion,” Ted Wilson dangles:

As a society, there are specific fashion trends we all look back on and can pretty much agree were horrible mistakes. But some of these trends were only mistakes until recently, when they again became fashionable, mostly to people who weren’t alive when they happened the first time. Other trends are new, but equally unpleasant.

As dangling modifiers go, this is not a howler, but it’s as erroneous as any, betraying the impatience with preliminaries to which excited writers are liable.

Because danglers are only rarely misleading, one might ask why they’re the capital sin that we find them to be. If we “know what you mean,” then why get testy? Here’s why: syntactical carelessness is structural. It has nothing to do with the “typo” class of innocent error — typing “that” for “than,” or “1789” for “1792.” Those are details. The dangler betrays a faulty grasp of the ideas in a sentence, an unwarranted shifting of point-of-view that illegitimately converts subjects into objects and vice versa.

The classic, and comical, dangler is this:

Walking down the lane, the house came into view.

Technically, what’s wrong here is that the person walking down the lane — the implied subject of the opening clause — is replaced, without warning, by the house, which stands as the subject of a statement in the passive mood. (Houses come into view, but they do not walk down lanes.)  Psychologically, what’s wrong with the sentence is the ramming together of two statements without cleaning up the debris. 

I was walking down the lane, and the house came into view.

As I walked down the lane, the house came into view.

Both of these correct statements are easy enough to say. If you believe that “As I walked down the lane” and “Walking down the lane” are somehow “functionally equivalent,” then you ought to find something else to do with your time, and leave writing to people who do not allow considerations of functional equivalence to operate their pencils.

What Mr Wilson ought to have written:

As a society, we all look back on specific fashion trends and can pretty much agree that they were horrible mistakes.

Dangling is not a horrible mistake, just an insidious one. Good writers just don’t.

One Response to “Exercice de Style:

  1. Nom de Plume says:

    I corrected a dangling modifier in my own editing work just yesterday. I think one of the great services of such an entry, RJ, and of your thoughtful blog in general, is to refresh the educated writer’s memory, and to expand the uneducated writer’s knowledge. Since the school system obviously isn’t up to this task any longer, I, for one, am eternally grateful that you are! Curmudgeon on, Garth!