Everyone has a pet peeve when it comes to grammar—that one error that you never can miss, and that, once you’ve read it, you cannot “unread.” Mine has always been the dangling modifier, which has rubbed me the wrong way ever since I first learned about it in Sixth Grade. We ALL learn about it, but most people seem to forget it. Now it looks like it’s even become acceptable to the venerable New York Times.
Far be it from me to take on a book critic of Dwight Garner’s stature, but I’m on firm ground here. On February 9, in his review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s new memoir In Other Words, he led off with a doozie, right in the second sentence: “Born in London to Indian immigrants, her first language was Bengali.” Uh—okay. So Lahiri’s first language was born in London to Indian immigrants?
If Mr. Garner wasn’t aware that he had written a nonsensical sentence, his editors at The Gray Lady should have been. It was up to them to catch it and correct it.
Six days later, Alex Williams’s otherwise entertaining piece on publicist Peggy Siegal in the Times’s Sunday Styles section included this intriguing reflection on Siegal’s youthful countenance: “Pushing 70, her skin is buttery smooth.” Well, technically, I guess if you are pushing 70, so is your skin, but—come on. Once again, the editors let it sail right through. Are they asleep at the wheel?
Dangling modifiers totally mangle the meaning of a sentence, and force you to stop and re-read it to figure it out. Yes, sometimes the work-around to avoid a dangling modifier results in two sentences instead of one, or a somewhat cumbersome form of syntax. But either of those are preferable to making a reader mentally untangle a phantasmogoric image like “Perspiring heavily, the shirt was soon soaked through.” Is it that hard to just write, “As he was perspiring heavily, his shirt was soon soaked through”? Or “He was perspiring so heavily, his shirt was soon soaked through”?
Even some of the best writers fall prey to this common mistake, and I frequently find myself pointing it out to clients whose work is, in almost every other respect, grammatically flawless. Here’s a word of advice. If you’re a writer who is composing a query letter, be especially vigilant about this. Your query letters are as representative of your writing as your manuscript is, and something as simple as a dangling modifier can be a red flag—to this schoolmarm of an agent, at least.