If the rules of English grammar are carved anywhere, they’re carved only in butter. A lot of the rules are arbitrary at best and sometimes even silly. And it’s possible that you can violate many of them and still be considered a good writer. But should you? Like everything else, the rules come into and go out of fashion. Shakespeare could use double negatives, but we’re not supposed to. An educated person in the 17th Century could say ain’t, but not now. So, where does that leave us?
I’m a writer-for-hire, so I’m expected to know the rules and follow them. But I don’t, always. Should I? Let’s look at an example of a standard rule of writing. In this case, I’m talking about modifiers and the things they modify. (I’ll use some technical names, but don’t worry about them. They aren’t important when you’re writing, because you’ll recognize one when you see it.) The modifier can be one word like happy, or it can be words in a phrase, like over the hill or sitting on top of the world. The first example is an adjective, the next one is a prepositional phrase, and the third one is a participial phrase. The rule we’re considering is: Don’t separate a modifier from the thing it modifies. That’s easy if the modifier is a single word, green, and the thing it modifies is parrot. You wouldn’t write, “I saw a parrot sitting in a tree green.” It’s pretty obvious that if you want the reader to know that the parrot’s green, you put the modifier next to the parrot. You could even write, “I saw a parrot green upon a tree sitting,” and the reader would still know the parrot’s green. It’s just a bit more poetic. Where we more often get into trouble is when the modifier is a phrase instead of a single word. For example, the phrase “under a palm tree” is the modifier in the sentence “I stood under a palm tree and watched a parrot.” In the sentence “Today, standing under a palm tree, I watched a beautiful parrot,” the modifier is “standing near a palm tree.” In both examples, the phrases are telling us (modifying) who was standing under the palm tree. And it’s clear that I was the one because the modifiers are right next to the thing being modified.
Now comes the fun. Groucho Marx said, “Once I shot an elephant wearing my pajamas.” That was either a very unlikely place to find an elephant, or it was a dangling modifier. When the modifier gets misplaced in a case like this, it can confuse the meaning. That’s the reason for the rule. It applies any time a modifier gets placed so that it seems to modify a subject other than the intended one. If I wrote, “I once watched a parrot wearing just my old rain coat,” I’d have to say that I’ll never understand how that parrot got into my rain coat. Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to say. Oh, sure, I could always use the lame, old excuse, “But you knew what I meant.” Maybe so, but as a writer, it’s my responsibility to make it perfectly clear what I mean. It’s not the reader’s job to figure it out.
In the New York Times, in May 2005, there was a picture of a duck with her brood walking along a road. Next to the picture was the explanation: A mallard that nested for weeks outside the Treasury Department in Washington led her day-old ducklings yesterday through Rock Creek Park. Agriculture Department wildlife experts escorted the new family to its new home in a four-vehicle motorcade. In this case, the phrase “in a four-vehicle motorcade” is obviously intended to modify “experts escorted.” Unfortunately, it seems to describe the ducks’ new home. Aside from any grammatical consideration, that’s just plain sloppy writing.
So, this is a rule that needs to be followed if you’re going to write clearly. Here’s a handy trick when you think there might be a problem with a modifier in your writing. Just read your sentence out loud, and if it sounds like there’s any possibility the reader will misunderstand the meaning, rewrite it to make sure the modifier is doing its job. chosing