In last week’s column, I discussed how the misplaced modifying phrase in the headline “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight” miscommunicated its intended sense. I then suggested “Donaire wins in stunning but strange title fight” as a rewrite to put that headline on firmer semantic footing.
That flawed headline was actually just the first of two problematic constructions brought to my attention by fellow good English advocate Gerry T. Galacio in his posting in Jose Carillo’s English Forum. The other was this disjointed-sounding passage from an opinion piece that came out in April in a social media news website:
“One could say the Supreme Court decision on the contentious Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law is the judgment of Solomon.
“Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, both pro-RH and anti-RH claimed success. The decision was hailed as ‘win-win’.”
Gerry Galacio commented: “What was ‘handed down’? The Supreme Court’s RH decision, that’s obvious from the [first paragraph]. But the way the 2nd paragraph is written, ‘Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing’ wrongly modifies ‘both pro-RH and anti-RH’.”
He then offered this rewrite for that second paragraph: “Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, the decision was hailed as ‘win-win’ for both pro-RH and anti-RH groups.”
Gerry Galacio definitely did a superb job in that rewrite, for it correctly identifies and positions “the decision”—not “both pro-RH and anti-RH groups”—as the true, legitimate subject of the modifying participial phrase “handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing.”
But then I must disagree with his contention that that participial phrase wrongly modifies the subject “both pro-RH and anti-RH” in the original sentence. It doesn’t and, both grammatically and semantically, couldn’t possibly do so. This is because that participial phrase isn’t a misplaced modifying phrase like “stunning and strange” in the news headline “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight,” which actually succeeds in effecting the modification, albeit in a wrongheaded way. What we have this time is a total failure to modify.
Formally, a modifier that totally fails to modify is called a dangling modifier. It’s usually a phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, and is often—but not always—located at the beginning of a sentence. Usually functioning as an adjective, which is what the participial phrase does in this case, it is unable to clearly modify a particular subject in the sentence. In contrast, a misplaced modifier is a word or group of words positioned or attached to the sentence in the wrong place, or isn’t placed near enough to the word it’s supposed to modify, thus ending up modifying the wrong word. In short, the modification is actually but wrongly consummated.
In a subsequent posting in the Forum, Gerry Galacio presented another seriously flawed sentence construction, this time from the companion weekly magazine of a leading Philippine broadsheet. It reads as follows: “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.”
Gerry Galacio identified the frontline participial phrase “being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo” as a dangling modifier, but based on the preceding discussion, I must say that it’s actually a misplaced modifier. This is because that participial phrase suceeeds in effecting the modification of the main clause, even if in a faulty way because of the subject-verb disagreement between the singular “descendant” and the plural “people.”
I now join Gerry Galacio in inviting readers to do the exercise of rewriting that sentence to get rid of that misplaced modifier.
Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.