How to avoid leaving your readers dangling

Can you spot what’s wrong with this sentence?

Despite announcing record sales, Apple’s share price fell 10% yesterday.

It was the original opening line of a blog post I published the other week. The moment I pressed “publish” I realised, with horror, that the sentence would have Lynn Truss types fizzing with disgust.

If you’re of an editorial disposition, you’ll recognise my mistake as a dangling modifier. If you’re not editorially inclined – and you didn’t instantly spot my error – read on.

By the end of this post, you’ll be able to impress the sort of people who are impressed with themselves for knowing about things called dangling modifiers.

Look at my original sentence again:

Despite announcing record sales, Apple’s share price fell 10% yesterday.

Read literally, this sentence says the share price announced the record sales, which, of course, is nonsensical.

We say the phrase despite announcing record sales is left dangling because it isn’t logically attached to the second part of the sentence, Apple’s share price fell 10% yesterday.

To fix the error, I had to make Apple rather than Apple’s share price the subject (that is, the thing doing the verb) of the second half of the sentence.

So I hurriedly rewrote my original as:

Despite announcing record sales, Apple experienced a 10% fall in its share price yesterday.

I needn’t have felt too bad about my mistake, because dangling modifiers are everywhere. For example, I often get letters from my local concert hall beginning:

As one of our regular visitors, I would like to invite you to…

Again, read literally, the sentence implies the author of the letter is the regular visitor, which I suspect is not what they mean.

A simple fix might be to say:

As you are one of our regular visitors, I would like to invite you to…

And yesterday’s BBC online report on the Baftas contained this rather confused sentence:

However, despite going into the awards with 10 nominations, Day-Lewis’s prize was Lincoln’s sole success.

This sentence implies that Day-Lewis’s prize had 10 nominations, not the film Lincoln. More correct might have been:

However, Day-Lewis’s prize was the only success for Lincoln, which went into the awards with 10 nominations.

Does it matter if you dangle?

Style guides rail against the dangling modifier because it supposedly confuses readers. I’m not so sure.

Did my uncorrected first sentence really leave you baffled by the idea of a sentient share price going around announcing things?

Were you in any doubt who was the regular visitor to the concert hall?

Did you really assume Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bafta was nominated for 10 Baftas?

If you heard any of those sentences in daily conversation would you stop the speaker and ask for clarification? I’m fairly sure you wouldn’t (unless, of course, you’re a pedantic prescriptivist with no manners).

Lessons

1. Even professional writers make mistakes. Everyone needs a second pair of eyes on their work.

2. Get a third pair of eyes if you can. A colleague also missed my dangler.

3. Dangling modifiers are easy to use, but also easy to fix.

4. Dangling modifiers are hard to spot, so train your eyes and ears to pick up on them.

5. Try not to dangle, but don’t worry too much if you do. Most of the time, we’ll still know what you’re trying to say.

6. Dangling modifiers don’t muddle readers. But some might think they’re a sign of muddled thinking, so fix them when you can.

7. Just knowing the phrase dangling modifier gives you editorial credibility. For Lynn Truss clout, take every opportunity to tut over other people’s danglers.

9 Responses to “How to avoid leaving your readers dangling”

  1. Ian Harris says:

    Hey Claire! Just curious: would it not be better to open with ‘Apple’?

    “Apple’s share price fell 10% yesterday, despite the firm announcing record sales.”

    Or do you feel the contradiction between the news and the share price is the story?

    Ian

  2. Michael says:

    I don’t think that many people would be confused by the first version. It’s punchier, more immediate that the corrected version.
    I find the unintended ambiguities in headlines hilarious but few of my friends see them.

  3. I was going to make the same suggestion Ian made.

    No, I don’t think dangling modifiers matter as much as some people say they do. I read the Apple sentence knowing exactly what you meant. It’s only the close readers who will identify the DM, which is such a small minority. Most people don’t read the news–let alone our blog posts–carefully. But I’m always thankful when someone points out an issue, because I usually miss them.

  4. Paul Eveleigh says:

    I’m with Michael on this one, Clare. You achieved your aim by getting your message into most readers’ heads.

    Clare, you put two thoughts into your sentence. That can cause problems. You could’ve split your sentence in two: “Yesterday Apple announced record sales. Yet its share price dropped 10 per cent.”

    And yes, dangling modifiers agitate purists. But if people grasp your message, they neither notice nor care. Dangling modifiers or no dangling modifiers.

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Ian, I agree it could well have been better to start with “Apple”. And Paul, yes, two sentences might have been even better. As I say, everyone’s work can use a second eye!

    You’ve both given me an idea for another blog post.

  6. Ian Harris says:

    Clare – I just realised I’ve returned because I realised I mis-spelt your name.
    Sorry!

    Ian

  7. Ian Harris says:

    Now I’m back again because I mangled my previous comment. I’ll stop now.

  8. Liat says:

    Instantly spotted it! Ok, well, after you drew attention to the fact that there was something wrong, I realized what it was.

    I would never have spotted it had I not devoured the great book you recommended, How to Edit Your Own Writing. :)

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