Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wooden Legs and Mustaches by Andy Scheer

If you've ever watched Mary Poppins, you've received fair warning about dangling modifiers.

Been a few years since you've watched it? Let me remind you of this key example of grammatical humor.

Bert the chimney sweep (played by Dick Van Dyke) tells Uncle Albert (played by Ed Wynn), “Speakin' o' names, I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.”

“What's the name of his other leg?” Uncle Albert says.

A classic case of a dangling modifier, when a word or phrase wanders too far from the term it should stay close to—and attaches itself to a stranger—with strange results.

But in all my years of editing, I've never caught a full-grown wild one, a dangler the likes of a leg named Smith. Sure, I've caught my share of textbook examples like these:

Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
Walking down Main Street, the trees were beautiful.
I saw the trailer peeking through the window.

All mildly amusing and in need of rewriting, but nothing worthy of Bert and Uncle Albert. But this past week, I finally caught a whopper.

Consider this sentence from a fiction manuscript:

A receptionist escorted them to the office of the canal security director, a poised man with a thin mustache named Madrid.

What were his sideburns named?


Yvonne Blake said...

Smile - Groucho Marx also comes to mind when I hear dangling modifiers.

Linda Glaz said...

Am still laughing and am very guilty of this myself. When they are pointed out they are so obvious, but not when writing them. Errrgghh! But having lived in Madrid for three years, do I get a pass?

Davalyn Spencer said...

Too funny! I'm saving these for my college students. BTW - enjoyed your workshop at the Colorado Christian Writer's Conference.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for reminding us not to do these things.

Being a poor grammarian, my manuscript is full of of blunders I write. So I've hired a typist/proofreader to catch my errors. She's a college student, with her own computer named Mary. :)


Facing writer's block on the WIP, the blogs looked all the more enticing, so leaving comments all over the blogosphere, the day was wasted.

sally apokedak said...

Hmm. And the double word was really an accident. Being the worst proofreader, my blog comments make me look stupid.

ha this is addictive.

Rick Barry said...

Congratulations on the good catch, Andy!

Here's a dangling modifier that was spoken during a college commencement ceremony. The president of the school began introducing the recipient of an honorary degree with these words: "An alumnus and longtime friend of XYZ college, the Lord has greatly blessed Pastor Johnson...."*

I was stunned. Quite a feather in the cap of the Alumni Association!

*Names changed for obvious reasons. ;)

Timothy Fish said...

I'm sure I must use them frequently, because they don't irritate me half as much as people who make jokes by pretending they don't know what the person was trying to say.

Linda Glaz said...

Anytime I have to go back and reread to be sure of what was said, it pulls me away from the story and these are notorious for making me reread. While they can always be fixed, it's better not to do them in the first place. BTW, Andy, did the Joneses say something funny just to keep up?