Friday, October 23, 2009

Placement of modifiers (8)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. A misplaced modifier, also called a dangling modifier, forces the reader to guess what the modifier is intended to modify.

Example of a dangling modifier

A recent article contained this dangling modifier:

Financially crippled due to our continued wars for empire and the printing of billions of new dollars to repay political cronies in the financial world has left us in a precarious position in Afghanistan.” (Boldface added.)

When the reader begins reading this sentence, he sees the adverb “[f]inancially,” which clearly modifies the next word, the past participle “crippled.” So far, so good.

Next, the reader naturally expects to encounter the word or phrase that the participle “crippled” modifies. Who or what has been crippled?

A word or phrase modified by a participle usually appears immediately after the participle, as in Robert Browning’s classic line, “Smiling the boy fell dead.”

Or if not immediately, soon.

But in our example, the modified word or phrase does not appear immediately or soon.

After the modifier “crippled,” the reader has to slog through 23 words that modify the modifier:

“…due to our continued wars for empire and the printing of billions of new dollars to repay political cronies in the financial world…”

The reader now has read a total of 25 words (enough to create an overly long sentence) and is still waiting to find out who or what has been crippled.

But he will not learn it from the author, who immediately introduces the main verb: “has left.”

Apparently, the author has forgotten that he began the sentence with the modifier “crippled.” As a result, he has forgotten to specify the word or phrase modified by that modifier.

He has also forgotten to specify a subject for the main verb: Who or what “has left us in a precarious position in Afghanistan”? And to whom does the direct object “us” refer?

Well, I know that:

• In this article, the author frequently uses the pronoun “we,” often in connection with wars waged by the U.S. Government.

• According to the bio at the end of the article, the author is a retired soldier of the U.S. Government and participated in one of the wars mentioned in the article.

But it is highly probable that many of his readers have never been soldiers of the U.S. Government and did not participate in any of the wars mentioned. The author surely knows this.

Therefore, I will guess that, by “we,” the author does not mean “my fellow soldiers and I” or “you readers and I.”

He probably means “the U.S. Government.” The U.S. Government is an “it,” but many people mistakenly call it “we,” just as they mistakenly call the nearest Major League Baseball franchise “we.”

So, here’s my suggested rewrite:

Financially crippled by its continued inflating and war making, the U.S. Government has left itself in a precarious position in Afghanistan.

The Takeaway: Avoid dangling modifiers. Place every modifier close to the word or phrase it modifies. If that isn’t possible, recast the sentence. Don’t make your readers work harder to read the sentence than you worked to write it.

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