Dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and split infinitives

By Bill Taylor

It seems to me that today’s society is kinda giving what we used to know as “grammar” quite a battering. In fact, I’m not sure the rules, procedures, elements structure, style and such of our English language that we learned in school many years ago are being taught these days. I suppose staccato texts, tweets, e-mails, and instant messages don’t lend themselves easily to the constraints of old-fashioned sentences with subjects and objects, complete with nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all in proper order. Nope, what we often encounter is a hodgepodge of words strung together in what appears to be a random fashion.

One of the common bloopers we encounter occasionally is what is known as a “dangling participle.” This bit of grammar, often found at the beginning of a sentence, appears to modify a part of the sentence — but probably not the one the writer intended. How about “Driving down the country lane, the trees displayed a riot of fall colors.”

Oops. Were the trees doing the driving? Grammatically speaking, that’s the meaning. A bit more dramatic is the possible meaning of, “Plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite Falls.” Saw the falls on the way down? For the most part, these lapses in proper sentence construction are humorous, but surely represent a careless disregard for proper form.

Of greater concern are “misplaced modifiers,” that is, a word whose position in a sentence likely makes the meaning either ambiguous or erroneous. This frequently happens with the words “only” and “often.” In the sentence, “I only ate one piece of chicken.” is the meaning “I alone and nobody else ate one piece of chicken,” or ” I ate only one piece of chicken.” Does it matter? Possibly, depending on the context such as determining the cause of food poisoning.

What if the driver of a car pulled over for speeding told the law enforcement officer, “I only had one beer.”? Does that mean the driver had just one beer while others in the car had a different number? Could be a problem.

Sales people frequently use “only” in a sales pitch such as, “You only will make three payments of $29.95 each.” Once again the position of “only” can make a difference. Is the meaning that you, as a special customer, will be the only one making these payments in this amount while others make a different number of payments or for a different amount? Kinda reminds me of street vendors who used to say. “Hey, buddy, I’m gonna make you a special deal.” Check out how many commercials use “only” and where it appears. You may be surprised.

Okay, moving on. In the sentence, “Workers operating the ‘smoothing’ machine often report having headaches.” what is meant? Does it mean workers who frequently, but not always, operate the machine report having headaches – or does it mean workers who operate the machine as their regular job report having frequent headaches? Nitpicking? Not in a workplace safety inquiry.

In the sentence, “College students who engage in overnight study sessions often do poorly in tests,” does this mean students who frequently do “overnighters” generally do not fare well in tests? Could be — or maybe not.

Splitting an infinitive was once considered a grammatical “no-no”, but apparently is now considered acceptable. [Just in case you forgot, an infinitive is a construct of a verb along with “to” such as “to go” and “to read.” A split infinitive occurs when an adverb or adverbial phrase is inserted between the to and the verb — such as in “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yep, decades of hearing and seeing split infinitives has resulted in the virtual discard of this taboo.

I recall how one of the most difficult tasks I had back when I was doing engineering type stuff for a living was to educate young engineers in how to write and speak effectively. Oh, they were technically qualified, but frequently had difficulty in explaining the progress or results of their efforts or expressing their concerns or needs. My job was to help them “un-learn” those sloppy, inadequate habits of communicating – habits they had practiced for years.

So what does all this mean? Probably not much in our every day personal lives and particularly in those who communicate in short bursts of words devoid of grammatical norms such as complete sentences. As a guy told me recently, “It don’t hardly make no difference how I say something so long as you get what I mean.” He may be right. At least that’s how it seems to me.


By Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]