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May 7, 2021

“A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.”

“Parking near the beach, the sun began to creep above the horizon.”

Have dangling modifiers ceased to matter? I seem to be bumping into them more frequently than ever. Perhaps I am the only one who cares. Unlike split infinitives, it’s not a matter of mere etiquette: the words do not convey the meaning the author intended.

Today’s Daily Poem from The Paris Review includes one. I heard one last week at the zoom-launch of a recently-published anthology, and read one this week in a respectable poetry blog. I recognised the otherwise excellent poem and I remembered mentioning it to the poet during a workshop. I don’t think she knew what I was talking about.

A recent issue of a long-established literary journal featured several dangling modifiers in the same long poem – a poem that had been translated by one of the editors of said literary journal.

Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old fart with nothing better to do than criticise writers more successful than I am. Who cares about dangling modifiers? Do you, dear reader? If you have light to shed, please shed it now!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2021 6:05 pm

    Yes, it does matter! They don’t make sense – usually the opposite – and are often unintentionally funny. It’s nothing to do with being conservative about language usage. It’s all about clarity of thought and expression. Something that poets should be intensely interested in.

  2. Clare Diprose permalink
    May 8, 2021 12:59 pm

    My father would have pointed out that sort of thing for a shared laugh. I still notice – and care!

    See you later


  3. May 9, 2021 1:10 pm

    Peter, Clare – thank you!

  4. May 9, 2021 8:04 pm

    100% agree. I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist (or try not to be) but I do believe that clarity is KEY to communication. Especially in poetry! These offenders need to be named, linked and shamed IMO, though I respect your discretion.

    • May 10, 2021 9:32 am

      On further reflection it occurs to me that I may give haiku a pass for dangling participles on occasion – perhaps because certain kinds of ambiguity are acceptable, even prized, in Japanese poetics. Maybe it has to do with how much time readers are expected to spend with a piece, and how much tolerance they may have for puzzling things out? Whereas in regular first-person lyric it tends to annoy me because it seems like part of an affected colloquialism, similar to the tendency of some poets to use the second person pronoun extensively when they’re really talking about themselves: fine once in a while, but tiresome if it becomes a habit.

      • May 14, 2021 11:19 am

        Dave, thank you for taking the time to comment.
        Breaking it into 3 lines and removing upper-case and punctuation might make something along the lines of my first example sort-of OK. The second would be harder to redeem.
        Colloquialisms tend to go out of date rather quickly. What will future readers make of writing that starts, meaninglessly, with the word “So”?

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