September 07, 2007

Dangling Modifiers at Jeopardy

In the first game of the final round of the 2007 Jeopardy College Championship, one of the $2000 Double Jeopardy clues was:

You may find "awk" for "awkward" next to this type of ambiguous modifier, like "shake before using"

The intended response was: "What is 'dangling'?". Apparently the Jeopardy folks think that "shake before using" contains a dangling modifier. It doesn't, for the simple reason that it contains no modifiers of nouns at all. The only modifier is the clause "before using", which may be treated as an adverbial modifier of "shake", and this does not dangle since the constituent it modifies is overt. [I've modified slightly my original statement that there are no modifiers at all here in response to a comment by Arnold Zwicky. I don't think that such clauses are considered modifiers in school grammar, though I could be wrong about that.]

Here's a definition of dangling modifier by Frances Peck from the web site of the Writing Centre at the University of Ottawa:

A dangling modifier is usually a phrase or an elliptical clause -- a dependent clause whose subject and verb are implied rather than expressed -- that functions as an adjective but does not modify any specific word in the sentence, or (worse) modifies the wrong word.

It gives the example:

Raised in Nova Scotia, it is natural to miss the smell of the sea.

Here, the phrase "raised in Nova Scotia" is intended to modify the implicit experiencer of the main clause. That is, this sentence is intended to mean the same thing as:

It is natural for a person raised in Nova Scotia to miss the smell of the sea.

where "raised in Nova Scotia" modifies "person".

As I am a specialist neither in English nor in school grammar, just to be sure that the term "dangling modifier" is not used differently from the way in which I understand it, I checked with an authentic expert, my colleague Geoff Pullum. The Jeopardy folks ought perhaps to do the same.

Fortunately, this error did not affect the game as none of the three contestants, Craig Boge, Christine Kennedy, and Cliff Galiher, even attempted this clue. It is possible that this is because they know nothing at all about grammar, but an optimistic interpretation is that they were perplexed by the clue precisely because they do know what a dangling modifier is.

Posted by Bill Poser at September 7, 2007 01:31 PM