Modifier Blues

Dasu Krishnamoorty

In previous units we have promised to discuss phrases and clauses against the setting of a sentence from R.K. Narayan’s book Salt and Sawdust.  Now is the time to redeem the promise. Narayan’s sentence (cited below) is an example of a modifier mistake. The big names associated with modifier mistakes show how difficult it is to get around them. These mistakes have little chance of appearing in writing if we do not skip the various stages between simple sentences and pedantry.  

The Narayan sentence reads as follows: “While passing Grover Street one morning, an uncle of mine hailed me from his door.”

While passing Gruve Street one morning is a subordinate clause that depends on a main clause to make sense.. It is a modifying clause that is always either followed or preceded by the noun or pronoun it seeks to modify. So here the subordinate clause modifies the noun ‘an uncle of mine.’ Now there is a problem here. Okay, if “an uncle of mine” is passing the street, how can he be at the same time at his door to hail ‘me?’ Going by logic we will have to insert ‘I was’ between ‘while’ and ‘passing.’ 

The new sentence now reads like this:

  • “While I was passing Grover.Street one morning, an uncle of mine hailed me from his door.”
  • The subordinating conjunction ‘while’ connects the subordinate clause ‘While I was passing the Grover street one morning” to the main clause “an uncle of mine hailed me from his door.”
  • You can write this sentence in a different way too. “An uncle of mine hailed me from his door while I was passing Grover Street one morning.”
  • See how much explanation a bad sentence needed to make it intelligible. The original sentence is an example of what is known as a dangling modifier that has an uncertain subject to modify.  A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.
  • Modifiers can be adjectives, adjective clauses, adverbs, adverb clauses, absolute phrases, infinitive phrases, participle phrases, and prepositional phrases about which we will learn later.. In our example it was not clear who was passing Grover Street. All because of the impossibility of the subject passing the street as well as hailing “me’ from his door at the same time.
  • Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that provide more information about what they modify. One easy way of handling a dangling modifier is to reorder the sentence needing modification so that the word is clearly linked to the modifying phrase. 
  • Below are more examples of confusing modifiers taken from my archives to show that they are not rare phenomena: 
  • Read this sentence by Dileep Padgaonkar in his column Talking Terms in The Times of India, 30 Nov, 03: “The new Library of Parliament by Raj Rewal avoids those pitfalls. Located in the shadow of the colonnaded drum housing the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the architect has paid discreet homage to the genius of Lutyens and Baker but without a trace of mimicry.” So, it is the architect who is located in the shadow of the drum and not the Library of Parliament?
  • Guatam Padmanabhan, a columnist, writes in The Sunday Express in his column Book Buzz (7 Dec.3, 03): “Instituted in 1973, the winner is selected from nominations made by readers of the British trade journal, The Bookseller.” Who is instituted, the winner or the award?  Don’t wonder if both Padmanabhan and Padgaonkar are in the eminent company of Narayan.
  • Media are an endless cornucopia of such mistakes. Here is a gem from Aniket Alam’s report in The Hindu (5 Jan 03) entitled “A one man’s crusade: It was and It Is.” The fourth para reads as follows: ”An advertising professional with a TV management degree from New York, Mr. Natarajan’s documentary has been hailed by critics, scholars and freedom fighters alike for evocatively presenting a glimpse of life during the last days of the Nizam state.” The appositive phrase “an advertising professional with a TV management degree from New York’ wrongly applies to Natarajan’s documentary instead of Natarajan himself, who is the subject of the modifier.
  • Janyala Srinivas writes in The Indian Express (23 May 03) feature Running with riots, “After hours of research and getting into contacts across town, the road led to Vanmadi Vankani Ni Pol, Shahpur, where Hindus reside.” Since when have roads joined the ranks of researchers? This is a case of dangling modifier that modifies a part of speech not marked for modification.
  • S.S.Krishnaji (The Hindu, 16 Dec.2002) in an article titled ‘Courage was his Watchword’ writes: Suspecting Prakasam’s stay in the jail along with other noted leaders was dangerous, he was shifted to the Knnanore jail in 1931,’ Who suspected Prakasam and who shifted him?’ The participle ‘suspecting Prakasam’s stay’ does not have a subject to modify.

Request: Please look up definitions of modifiers, phrase, clause and sentences in your grammar books.

See how the uncle could pass the street as well as be at his door to hail Narayan. This ambiguity passed the scrutiny of both Narayan and the distinguished Penguin editors.

where the identity of the subject was unclear. The mistake drove the reader crazy. Though failed to get him open a grammar book. ‘Saying goodbye, the train left.’ The context will tell you that the train left after the father had said goodbye to his daughter.

Many of us seem comfortable with a sentence that has action but not the actor. Like all religions getting equal respect in a secular setup modifier mistakes get the same respect from media persons as passive voice sentences. At this stage we will spoil the sport to accommodate a brief reference to clauses and phrases, the habitat for most modifier mistakes. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.