“A dangling modifier walks into a bar …”

Posted by on May 13, 2013

© GettyYou may be familiar with the not-very-funny jokes based on the old formula “someone/something walks into a bar…”. They usually involve a play on words, as in ‘A drunk walks into a bar. “Ouch!” he says.’ Exactly – they aren’t very funny. But some of them make useful points about grammar:

A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.

This tells you exactly what a ‘dangling modifier’ (or ‘dangling participle’) is, and simultaneously exemplifies the problem, i.e that there is no clear grammatical subject – or ‘doer’ – of ‘finishing a drink’, so it dangles, or hangs there helplessly. The only possible candidate for subject is ‘the bartender’, but that makes no sense in light of the usual bartender-client narrative.

Joking aside, I heard this confusingly dangling participle on a radio news broadcast, and replayed the snippet several times to confirm that the reader really did say:

Police negotiated with him, minutes before being shot dead by marksmen.

Nonsense! ‘Police’ is the only available subject of ‘being shot dead’, which implies that they, not the armed gunman they’d been negotiating with, were shot dead by marksmen. The error must soon have been noticed and the script changed, because subsequent news reports did not repeat it.

It is often said that dangling participles make a sentence ambiguous, but in fact they make nonsense of it – they force the hearer/reader to construct a single, incorrect interpretation.

In contrast, there are sentences whose construction is perfectly ‘correct’ but whose grammar genuinely allows for two interpretations. In September 2011 The Independent newspaper reported that ‘giant crabs’ (‘up to a metre across’) have invaded deep waters on the edge of Antarctica, probably because of global warming, and are wiping out a large number of smaller marine species. The report goes on:

A team led by Dr Craig Smith from the University of Hawaii at Manoa found the crabs using a remotely operated submersible.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, these crabs were no cleverer than the average crustacean – it was obviously the team of researchers, not the crabs, who were using the submersible. Yet unlike the case of the dangling participle, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the alternative ‘smart-crab’ interpretation.

It is often argued that ambiguity and humour can be employed in the ELT classroom to brighten things up and make everyone smile. I was inclined to agree until I started writing this post, but now I’m less sure. The least sophisticated of readers can decipher the intended meaning of my example using a modicum of common sense and real-world knowledge. But what would I do if a student pressed me for a grammatical explanation?

I’d have to say that in its intended meaning, the sentence structure is ‘subject + verb + object + adjunct’. The adjunct (aka ‘adverbial’) ‘using a remotely controlled submersible’ is a free-floating clause and could move to the beginning of the sentence. In the sillier, more ecologically alarming interpretation, the structure is ‘subject + verb + object (although the analysis is actually trickier than this), and the clause ‘using a remotely controlled submersible’ is simply part of the pattern of the verb find, not an adjunct at all.

How complicated is THAT? The problem is that all grammatical explanations involve metalanguage – language about language – and ‘grammars’ vary widely, both in terminology and in the units of description they recognise. It would be dauntingly difficult to establish a common metalanguage with a class of non-native-speaker learners, who might not benefit much from the process anyway.

Moreover, if there’s anything worse than a bad joke, it’s a joke that you just don’t get. You look blank, still waiting for the punch line, until the joke-teller kindly takes on the grim task of dissecting it for you. By this time all humour has long since vanished.

While grammatical ambiguities are complex, it could be much easier to bring lexical ambiguity – based on different meanings of words – into the classroom. I mean, it wouldn’t be hard to discuss the various interpretations of, say, ‘He doesn’t usually wear his pyjamas out’, or ‘Go to work on an egg’. Would it?

Comments (6)
  • Gill: Do you happen to know of any research into the use of humour and ambiguity in the classroom?

    Posted by boater on 13th May, 2013
  • [...] via “A dangling modifier walks into a bar …” | Macmillan. [...]

    Posted by This is why no one likes to stand next to copy editors at parties. | Patos Papa on 14th May, 2013
  • I like your dangling modifier joke, Gill, but perhaps it is one that only grammarians would find funny! I don’t know about learners, but I always enjoy recognizing and analysing jokes that are based on grammatical and/or lexical ambiguity, as so much of British/American humour is. For example, there are jokes that involve humorously misinterpreting an indirect object as a direct object – “Call me a cab.” “You’re a cab!”

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 14th May, 2013
  • boater: I recently read about a piece of research carried out by Dr Nicola Yuill in the University of Sussex into the understanding of ambiguity by 7-9-year-old children: she found that children’s reading comprehesion improved after sessions in which they worked in pairs to discuss and explain multiple meanings in joking riddles like “How do you make a sausage roll? Push it down a hill”. For details of her current work, look at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab/

    Posted by Gill on 14th May, 2013
  • Elizabeth: I always liked the ‘call me a cab’ joke; there are not many that are strictly grammatical. As for the dangling modifier one, all those of its ilk are instructive rather than funny, e.g “A bar was walked into by the passive voice”, “A question walks into a bar?”, “A synonym ambles into a pub” etc. You get the idea. They’re pretty basic, but have the advantage of being self-explanatory.

    Posted by Gill on 15th May, 2013
  • [...] the Macmillan Dictionary blog, Gill Francis discussed dangling modifiers and Simon Williams told the story behind the phrase, as rare as hen’s [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: spelling bee, swearing, French kiss | Wordnik on 31st May, 2013
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