Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Grammar and Style: an Example

The noted linguist Steven Pinker in his new book The Sense of Style is quoted on the internet as objecting to those grammatical purists who insist on correcting dangling modifiers, as when a sentence opens with a verb phrase that has no modifier:  "Driving down the road, the cat escaped."  Who is driving? The cat?

He asks, where did that rule prohibiting such modifiers come from, and what is its basis?

Although I don't think of myself as a purist or a stickler for "rules," I am the co-author of a textbook of grammar, The Practical Handbook for Writers (7th ed.), which advises writers to avoid the practice of having modifiers "dangle."  Of course, in spoken English, or in writing that is meant to sound colloquial, the convention (or "rule") can easily be overlooked.

Pinker says that fine stylists "use dangling modifiers all the time."  In Britain, perhaps many do, but not in American usage. If they are fiction writers, or journalists trying to capture someone's speech, perhaps they can get by with a dangler; but in this country, a good editor of any respectable journal or book publisher should suggest that the following danglers be re-worded:

   To become a nurse, at least four years of study work are required. (To become a nurse, you need/one needs to study at least four years.)  Why put the main clause in the passive voice, which prompts the dangling modifier?

   Turning the corner, a beautiful view awaited me (Pinker's example) which should be: "As I turned the corner/Turning the corner, I saw/encountered a beautiful view."  Or, if he wants to use the passive voice, "As I turned the corner, a beautiful view awaited me." Someone has to do the turning!

Or, to edit the cat example above:  "While we were driving down the road, the cat escaped."

Pinker wonders why anyone would make such a change, asserting that "there is no rule prohibiting a dangling modifier."  There is, I respectfully suggest, a logical reason--something better than an artificial rule--since the "driving" or other verbal has to modify a human subject who is doing the driving or turning or whatever. The issue is one of logic, the basis of the American convention. The Brits don't seem to worry about this problem.

It's true that there are several old-fashioned "rules" inherited from Latin practice in the 19th century that no longer apply in written English, such as "never end a sentence with a preposition" or "never split an infinitive."  Prinker has every right to question such usage in the 21st century.

But I hope editors and writers do not apply Pinker's rejection of the dangling "rule" to everything they write.  I would re-word any dangling modifier to make it less jarring, more logical and therefore more grammatical in anything I write for publication--unless I wanted to sound casual or colloquial.  But then, I am a hopelessly American purist.

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