Let's keep our words in right order

Barry Wood

One of Paul Simon's lesser-known songs from the Simon and Garfunkel era was "The Dangling Conversation." In writing, dangling involves modifiers that are attached to the wrong thing.

One of the chief culprits is something called "a dangling participle." As one expert pointed out, the term leaves something to be desired. Things dangle because of the way they're attached, not where, and this language problem is mostly about location. The term has stuck.

Whenever a sentence begins with a phrase containing a participle, often an "-ing" word, expect trouble to follow. Here's an example:

"Watching him from the dugout, Spahn's perfect pitching form impressed me even more."

Your mission is to find the subject of this sentence.

The opening phrase tells us we should look for someone who is watching. That would be "me," except that "me" is an object, so it can be watched but it can't do the watching.

The subject is "form," as in "Spahn's perfect pitching," but that can't be watching, either. In fact, "Spahn" is the "him" that's being watched.

Here's an easy fix: Place the subject after the introductory phrase that modifies it:

"Watching him from the dugout, I was even more impressed by Spahn's perfect pitching form."

Let's look at another:

"Following company procedures, the substance was isolated and authorities were called."

Who or what is following the procedures? The structure points to "the substance." But logic and the passive voice tell us that can't be it. The subject is actually absent — or implied.

Rewrite it to include a subject, even a generic one:

"Following company procedures, officials isolated the substance and called authorities." This not only makes it clear who's performing the actions, it also makes the sentence active.

Introductory fake-outs occur without participles:

"From a young age, teachers made a fuss over Sally's artistic abilities."

Hey, who are the adults here? Even though some of her teachers may have been young, it's Sally who has the youth role.

Possible correction: "Even when Sally was young, teachers made a fuss over her artistic abilities."

"Whether made with natural ingredients or not, an institute spokesman said all dog food manufacturers must adhere to the standards."

This dog of a sentence needs to go to obedience school. The question is not whether the institute spokesman is made of natural ingredients. Second, if we're able to leap that first logic gap, then we are being told that it's about what dog food manufacturers are made of.

This is what the writer is trying to say: "Whether dog food is made with natural ingredients or not, an institute spokesman said, all manufacturers must adhere to the standards."

"As a 20-year veteran, I figured the prosecutor wouldn't have a learning curve."

Who is the 20-year veteran?

Let's make it clear: "As a 20-year veteran, the prosecutor wasn't expected to have a learning curve."

If the writer wants to stay in the sentence, he could try:

"I figured that the prosecutor, a 20-year veteran, wouldn't have a learning curve."

English relies on word order for meaning more than most languages do. Without order, there is chaos.

Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at bwood@rrstar.com or write to Wood on Words, Rockford Register Star, 99 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61104.