Grammar Tip: Catch That Dangling Clause!

Posted on 06 July 2010

Maybe I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to grammar and spelling, but I think they’re important. Good grammar and spelling don’t magically, all by themselves, make a piece of writing good, but poor grammar and spelling make it hard for readers to understand, enjoy and be convinced by your writing. Sure, we all make occasional grammar and spelling mistakes, but consistently poor grammar and spelling undermine your credibility and damage your brand.

One kind of bad grammar that particularly annoys me is the misuse of introductory clauses in a sentence. I’m not going to get all technical with terminology such as “dangling participles” and “adjectival clauses” and “adverbial clauses”; I’ll simply give you some examples that I hope will be clear (I found them in the pages of my local newspaper):

  • “The son of a British Airways pilot, travel has always been a way of life for Wheeler.”
    Why it doesn’t work: TRAVEL is not “the son of a British Airways pilot”, WHEELER is.
    Suggested improved version: “For Wheeler, the son of a British Airways pilot, travel has always been a way of life.”

 

  • “Widely loathed by his people, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s days in power may be numbered…”
    Why it doesn’t work: Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s DAYS IN POWER were not “widely loathed by his people”; HE was.
    Suggested improved version: “Widely loathed by his people, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom may find that his days in power are numbered…”

 

  • “Emerging from the church into the sunlight, two storks wing their way across the sky…” (from an article by a writer who is describing his travels with a friend)
    Why it doesn’t work: The STORKS aren’t emerging from the church; two tourists are.
    Suggested improved version: “As we emerge from the church into the sunlight, two storks wing their way across the sky…”

 

  • “Now a graduate student at Columbia University, her wedding will be an interfaith affair as the Clintons are Baptists while Mezvinsky is Jewish.” (from an article about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding)
    Why it doesn’t work: Her WEDDING is not “now a graduate student at Columbia University”; CHELSEA is. (Another problem is that the two halves of the sentence have no logical connection with each other; they should be two separate sentences.)
    Suggested improved version: “Chelsea is now a graduate student at Columbia University. Her wedding will be an interfaith affair, as the Clintons are Baptists while Mezvinsky is Jewish.”

 

  • “After being repeatedly punched, thrown against walls and dragged around by her hair, Papadopoulos suddenly smashed a large concrete brick onto Yu’s head…” (from an article about a man, surnamed Papadopoulos, who murdered a woman, surnamed Yu)
    Why it doesn’t work: PAPADOPOULOS wasn’t “repeatedly punched, thrown against walls and dragged around by her hair”; YU was!
    Suggested improved version: “After repeatedly punching Yu, throwing her against walls and dragging her around by her hair, Papadopoulos suddenly smashed a large concrete brick onto her head…”

The solution

Ask yourself: Who or what is being described in the introductory clause? Is that the same as the grammatical subject of the sentence? If necessary, re-arrange the sentence completely.

Here are some examples of sentences (from the same newspaper) that use introductory clauses correctly:

  • “…reached by phone in Chicago earlier this month…, the soft-spoken composer, 44, acknowledged that he might have been slow off the mark to capitalise on the momentum with a world tour.”
    Why it works: Yes, it was “the soft-spoken composer” who was “reached by phone in Chicago earlier this month”, and it is the phrase “the soft-spoken composer” that is the grammatical subject of the sentence.

 

  • “Born into a musical family, Chloe had a good ear even while she was in the womb…”
    Why it works: Yes, it was Chloe who was “born into a musical family”, and it is the noun “Chloe” that is the grammatical subject of the sentence.

 

  • “Illegal but often tolerated, caning is rife in India’s school system…”
    Why it works: Yes, it is caning that is “illegal but often tolerated”, and it is the noun “caning” that is the grammatical subject of the sentence. 

 

  • “Prized for its tender, marbled texture, Kobe beef is a delicacy…”
    Why it works: Yes, it is Kobe beef that is “prized for its tender, marbled texture”, and it is the phrase “Kobe beef” that is the grammatical subject of the sentence. 

Good grammar makes a difference, doesn’t it?


1 Response to Grammar Tip: Catch That Dangling Clause!

  • [...] break the rules in order to create a desired effect. Here are two of my blog posts about grammar: “Grammar Tip: Catch That Dangling Clause!” and “Why I Care About Grammar (and Why You Should [...]

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