Inglourious Grammar

Beware the dangling modifier

Putting the fun into pedantry.

As any pedant will tell you, grammar is a serious business – and, though it pains me to say so, often viewed by others as a very dull business. In fact, the very mention of the word has the power to send the most severe insomniac straight to the Land of Nod. However, with a bit of creativity, there are always ways of livening up a potentially dreary subject, and the film makers at College Humor did precisely that a few years ago when they made a mini-spoof (a whole three minutes) based on the film Inglourious Basterds and featuring a “grammar Nazi”.

Without giving too much away, the punchline requires the viewer to be familiar with an issue of syntax (sentence structure) that catches out even the most experienced writers at times. So before you watch the film, here’s a quick heads-up on the dreaded “dangling participle…”

Normally we use an adjective to describe a noun or pronoun. For example, we say, “John is tired.” However, we also modify nouns using whole phrases, which we place before the said noun or pronoun, e.g. “Tired and footsore, John stumbled down the path.” This is correct, as the modifier describes the subject of the sentence, “John”. However, it would not be correct to say, “Tired and footsore, the path seemed to John to go on forever.” Here, the writer is saying that the path is tired and footsore, rather than John. In this case, the modifier is said to be “dangling” – hanging about at the start of the sentence, not quite sure where it fits in.

Here are another few examples of dangling modifiers, just to get your eye in…

“Barking and snarling, John was bitten by the dog.”

Now John might well have been snarling after the dog bit him, but the writer actually meant the modifier “barking and snarling” to apply to the dog and not John. Yet as the word “John” follows immediately after the modifier in this sentence, technically it applies to him.

“Laughing loudly, I could hear Jim at the other side of the room.”

Here, the writer wanted to imply that Jim was laughing so loudly that the speaker could hear him from the other side of the room. However, what he actually wrote implies that the speaker himself is doing the laughing, and not Jim, as the modifier “laughing loudly” is placed directly before the pronoun “I”.

OK, so now that you can spot a dangling modifier at 100 paces, enjoy the film!

http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6060107/grammar-nazis

Thanks to US outfit College Humor for this extremely creative grammar teaching tool!

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