Case 9: Tripping over a dangling modifier

12th February 2002

Filed by: Officer MacDonald

The Offence

Increasingly, the error known as a ``dangling modifier'' is becoming endemic. Here's an example, from Douglas Kelly, ``The Captain's Wife'' (NY: Dutton, 2001), p. 23:

Mary was thrilled by the sight from the quarterdeck of the canvas straining before the wind. With all sails out, she could barely see the tops of the masts ...

I can just see Mary with all her sails out, can't you? At least three more instances of similar gaffes mar this book, and I'm seeing the same sort of thing in other novels and in newspapers.

The Verdict

Kelly is guilty of perpetrating a dangling modifier. He wants ``With all sails out'' to modify the tops of the masts (or maybe the ship itself - which isn't even mentioned.) But it doesn't: it modifies the subject of the sentence, which is Mary.

What he meant to write is something like:

With all sails out, the tops of the masts were almost hidden from her view.

The Sentence

Mr. Kelly is a corporate pilot, and this is his first novel. The writing is undistinguished, but he has told a good story, and told it well. Though it would be nice if he turned over to his publisher an immaculate manuscript, I don't blame him much for making a few errors. I blame the publisher (Dutton, a member of the Penguin Group), who is obligated to correct authors' errors. So let's hang the publisher from the yardarm, and let Mr. Kelly off with only one stroke of the cat-o'-nine-tails.

Incidentally, the spelling checker for Microsoft Works 4.5 thinks Mr. Kelly should have put a hyphen between ``quarter'' and ``deck.'' Let's keelhaul the landlubber who's peddling that particular piece of idiocy.

Next case!

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