Fixing a sentence with a misplaced modifying phrase

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In the other week’s column, I joined fellow good English advocate Gerry Galacio in inviting readers to do the exercise of getting rid of the misplaced modifier in this sentence from the companion weekly magazine of a leading Philippine broadsheet:

“Being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo, people expect me to know much about this house which was built in 1845 by my great great grandparents, Trinidad Valerio Famy and Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo, a former gobernadorcillo of the town of Kawit.”

In his posting in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Gerry had identified the frontline participial phrase “being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo” as a dangling modifier, but I pointed out that it’s actually a misplaced modifier. This is because even if in a faulty way, it does attempt to modify the main clause. Indeed, if not for the subject-verb disagreement between the singular “descendant” and the plural “people,” that phrase could have done a perfectly legitimate modifying job.

Now let me present and critique the two suggested reconstructions I received for properly positioning that misplaced modifying phrase. The first was from reader Jun Pagulayan who posted his response in the online edition of the Times, and the second from Forum member Miss Mae who sent hers by e-mail.


Here’s Jun’s reconstruction:

“Being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo, I am expected to know much about this house which was built in 1845 by my great great grandparents, Trinidad Valerio Famy and Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo, a former gobernadorcillo of the town of Kawit.”

This is a good, grammatically airtight construction that neatly corrects the misplaced modification in the original sentence. The only hitch is that it also gets rid of the noun “people” as the subject of the main clause, so now we won’t know who expects the first-person “I” to know much about the house. I then suggested to Jun that perhaps he should try getting “people” back into the picture.

Miss Mae’s suggested fix is to split the original problematic sentence as follows:

“People expect me to know much about this house, being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo. It was built in 1845 by my great grandparents, Trinidad Valerio Famy and Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo, a former gobernadorcillo of the town of Kawit.”

Splitting the original sentence that way does make it easier to read, but I told Miss Mae that rather than properly position the misplaced modifying phrase, her rewrite made that phrase a dangling modifier instead. This is because it is now unable to modify the noun “house” (the subject most proximate to it) and neither could it find a logical subject in the main clause to modify.

Let me now point out that the problem with the original sentence is that, at the expense of clarity, the writer seems to have consciously avoided starting the sentence with the first-person “I.” Instead, he used the participial phrase “being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo” to start it—a construction that wrongly and illogically forces the noun “people” in the main clause to be its subject. This is a very common mistake of writers who have been taught the wrongheaded, old-school notion that starting an exposition with “I” is bad, egotistic writing.

Now see how effortlessly readable that problematic sentence becomes when it uses “I” as its true, legitimate subject:

“I am a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo, so people expect me to know much about this house that was built in 1845 by my great great grandparents, Trinidad Valerio Famy and Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo, a former gobernadorcillo of the town of Kawit.”

It’s a straightforward, no-nonsense construction that gives no room for a misplaced or a dangling modifying phrase to confound the reader.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook.Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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