Monday, April 28, 2008

Rules That Are

If you've read many of my rants or attended any of my presentations, you've probably heard me address "rules that aren't" -- those little superstitions have become the public face of grammardom even though they have little or no basis in fact. Split infinitives? They're just fine, and often preferable to the alternative. Ending sentences with prepositions? Beginning sentences with conjunctions? Nothing inherently wrong with either practice.

But I'm far from being entirely descriptivist. There are plenty of very common usage habits that have to be called inadvisable or just plain wrong, even when they produce perfectly understandable sentences. One such no-no is the dangler. I sometimes draw a blank when I have to come up with an example of a dangler, but I came across a couple of them in quick succession as I started to read the autobiography of Muhammad Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, and I thought I'd share.
Unable to renew his unrenewable youth, Ali's skills had declined during his enforced layoff.
It was Ali who was unable to renew his unrenewable youth, not "Ali's skills." Recast.
Awkward and rugged, it seemed as if Ali had underestimated him and his strength.
It was "him" (opponent Oscar Bonavena) who was awkward and rugged, not "it." Recast.


Unknown said...

Being a descriptivist doesn't mean finding everything acceptable. A descriptivist would probably point out that most people manage to understand the intended meaning of these sentences, even though on the surface it doesn't seem like they should. Though even a descriptivist would admit that dangling modifiers do introduce ambiguity and are often unclear or confusing.

Bill said...

I hadn't intended this as a provocative test case in that debate, but bring it on: How, exactly, is this issue different from the others in which my camp is accused of treating the structure of language as a math equation instead of letting people talk and write the way they talk and write? Yes, danglers sometimes introduce confusion. These ones don't.

Unknown said...

I'm not entirely sure what you're asking, since I've never accused you or your camp of anything. If you're asking how this is different from split infinitives or stranded prepositions, then I stand by my last comment.

Your first example may not have been confusing, but the second one threw me. Maybe context made it clear who was awkward and rugged, but it took me an extra moment or two to figure it out myself.

And just to be clear, I'm not saying that dangling modifiers shouldn't be fixed. I'm curious as to why you think they are just plain wrong, though.

Bill said...

I guess I got ahead of myself. I was inferring that you, while marking territory for the descriptivists, were acknowledging that it is valid to point out a dangling modifier as a structural fault independent of its understandability, which got me to wondering how a descriptivist would square that position with the usual criticism of prescriptivists. I see now that I misread your original comment.

So I guess I'm back to being lonely in asserting that the dangler sentences "mean" something other than what both the speaker and the casual reader might think they mean, just as a slip-of-the-tongue reference to "Nixon" in a long harangue about Reagan might be readily understood to mean Reagan by both speaker and listener but would have to be called a mistake even by the most descriptive of descriptivists.

Unknown said...

Your second example is ambiguous, and thus you are right to call for the sentence to be recast so we know who the modifier applies to.

The first example is just clumsy. It does however cause us to pause as we wait for the noun phrase the dangler is supposed to modify.

Where do you get the delusion from that descriptivists don't claim some things are plain wrong?

Presumably from the fact that for you, 'plain wrong' means 'something I personally disagree with for no good reason.'