Favorite Grammar Gaffes: Danglers

I ran across this article today in the New York Times.  Since we can all use some  occasional grammar reminders, I thought I would post it here.  Feel free to copy and paste it for yourself or comment on it.

March 5, 2013, 8:00 am

Favorite Grammar Gaffes: Danglers

By PHILIP B. CORBETT

On our list of recurring grammatical woes, dangling modifiers rank right alongside subject-verb problems and who-whom missteps.

Participle constructions, appositives and other modifying phrases generally should be followed immediately by the noun or pronoun that the modifier describes. Getting this right lends polish and precision to our prose; missteps make our writing seem slipshod.

Here are a few of the latest lapses:

•••

Mr. Hagel has long been on the outs with some party mates because of policy disagreements with them over the years, which sometimes made him seem more like a Democrat. But stemming from their Senate ranks as he did, the intensity of their grilling was striking and illustrative of how the old ways of the Senate are disappearing.

This is a classic dangling participle. The first noun or pronoun after the introductory modifying phrase should be the thing the phrase describes. In this case, that would be Hagel, not “intensity.”

•••

Silver-haired, stooped and cerebral, Benedict’s influence could well extend to the choice of a successor since he has molded the College of Cardinals — the papal electoral body — by his appointment of kindred spirits during his papacy.

A common type of dangler problem. Immediately after the modifiers, we should find the noun being modified. But the possessive “Benedict’s” can’t fill that role grammatically, since it, too, functions as a modifier. So “silver-haired, stooped and cerebral” seem to describe “Benedict’s influence” — not what we meant.

•••

Unlike a legal proceeding, no one testified under oath and witnesses were allowed to speak anonymously in the Freeh report, which also failed to conduct interviews with “most of the key witnesses,” the Thornburgh report said …

The noun right after the “unlike” phrase should be the thing that is “unlike.” Perhaps recast the sentence: “Unlike a legal proceeding, the Freeh inquiry did not involve sworn testimony, and …” (Trying to skirt this issue by using a phrase like “unlike in a legal proceeding” is no better, since “unlike” is a preposition and should be followed by a noun or pronoun, not another preposition.)
In a Word

This week’s grab bag of grammar, style and other missteps, compiled with help from colleagues and readers.

•••

The mayor, finally, makes for a diffident diplomat. His journeys to Albany feature elbow shots at the governor and legislators. Last week, he offered a seminar in how to turn off friends and fail to influence enemies.

As a reader pointed out, “diffident” means timid or shy, certainly not what we wanted to say here. Perhaps we meant “reluctant”?

•••

Fun., the Brooklyn pop-rock trio, won best new artist and song of the year for “We Are Young,” their inescapable hit that spent six weeks atop the Hot 100 and sold more than six million copies.

Let’s draw the line at changing the rules of punctuation in names. We don’t give Yahoo its exclamation point or Kesha her $, either. The period at the end of the name looks like a typo, which could cause readers to be confused or think we are sloppy. It has no practical effect on pronunciation, understanding or search.

•••

It turned out the activity was centered around a high school in Orange County.

From the stylebook:

center(v.). Do not write center around because the verb means gather at a point. Logic calls for center on, center in or revolve around.

•••

Prisoners have an important role in Palestinian society, with even those convicted of murder often upheld as heroes of resistance against Israel.

Make it “held up.”

•••

What he did not know was that the United States was quietly advocating against him.

“Advocate” means speak or act in favor of something; avoid the phrase “advocate against.”

•••

“I couldn’t understand any ideology that justified living here and not praying for the soldiers who are risking their lives for us to be here,” said Mr. Lipman, who grew up in Maryland.

Rabbis should keep that title in all references; throughout this article, we referred to Rabbi Dov Lipman as “Mr. Lipman.”

•••

But that has never stopped me from thinking with a shiver, when some poor civilian sap becomes the focus of an actor’s jibes and sallies, “There but for the grace of God …”

“Gibes,” not “jibes.” From the stylebook:

jibe. Colloquially, it means conform. In sailing, it means shift. Gibe means jeer or taunt.

•••

A cyclist made their way through the snow in Boston.

The plural “their” does not work with the singular “cyclist.”

•••

Perhaps the reason so many people are in the dark is because they want it that way.

“Because” is redundant after “reason.” Make it “that,” or rephrase.

•••

Tunisians had prided themselves on largely avoiding the political violence that has troubled transitions in neighboring countries like Libya, where the government has been unable to reign in militias that fought Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, or interrupt a cycle of political assassinations in the city of Benghazi.

A common lapse. Make it “rein in,” not “reign in.”

•••

In 2011, he encouraged Jewish voters in Brooklyn and Queens to vote for a Republican, Bob Turner, instead of a Democrat, David I. Weprin, in order to send a message to President Obama, whom he felt was not supportive enough of Israel.

Make it “who,” the subject of “was.”

•••

The Brooklyn Bridge may not be for sale, but surplus paint from the span is.

From the stylebook:

span. It is the part of a bridge between piers or supports. Do not use the word, even in a headline, to mean bridge.

•••

The iron was the odd piece out after it received the fewest number of votes among the original pieces.

Redundant. “Fewest votes” would have been fine.

•••

Mr. Hauer said that coastal areas of Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island could see flooding and should be prepared to seek alternative shelter.

The coastal areas won’t seek shelter; the people who live in them will.

•••

“We are gonna weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crises in the world,” he said.

No reason to use this nonstandard dialect spelling. Many — probably most — American speakers pronounce the phrase this way, but it’s still spelled “going to.”

•••

The main criteria used by judges is the risk of the defendant’s not returning to court for trial. …

In recent years, the use of bail bonds and pretrial release rates have fallen, he said.

In the first sentence, we meant “criterion,” singular. In the second sentence, make the verb “has fallen” to agree with the singular subject “use.”

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