Passives, Pandas, and Dangling Modifiers

The Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers by Deborah E. Bouchoux supplies the following “Tip for correcting dangling modifiers”:

“Most sentences that include dangling modifiers are written in the passive voice. Changing to active voice corrects the dangling modifier because an actor or subject is identified in the phrase that begins the sentence.

“When a boy, my father changed careers (passive voice).
When I was a boy, my father changed careers (active voice, actor identified in modifying phrase).”

This misidentification staggered me, even after several years of collecting published cases of people alleging passive voice in other people’s writing without knowing what passives are.

When a boy is a verbless clause consisting of a temporal word and a predicative noun phrase. It is analogous to the underlined parts of While a Senator, he was involved in a scandal, or Twice president already, Putin has now won a third term. There is no sign of passive voice here.

Bouchoux is right, though, that the initial phrase in When a boy, my father changed careers would be a dangling modifier if the intended meaning was “When I was a boy my father changed careers.”

I figured out the etiology of the mistake last Tuesday while visiting the superb Edinburgh Zoo, the only place in Britain where you can see giant pandas. The two tubby animals from China, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, are a huge attraction in Scotland. They arrived in Edinburgh last December to huge media coverage and crowds lining the streets.

It is very hard indeed to persuade pandas to mate in captivity, but Edinburgh believes it can succeed. Tian Tian is about to come into her very brief season of sexual availability. She spends her time lying around her apartment looking sexy, and nibbling on sprigs of bamboo, a rather indigestible analog of bonbons. But Yang Guang, her betrothed, is outside getting psyched up for his 15 minutes per annum of sexual action. All day he strides dramatically around his large enclosure, stopping only for occasional bouts of dominance assertion—doing a handstand against a tree trunk or a wall and urinating as high up as he can.

A politician mocking the disastrously unsuccessful Scottish Conservative party (much in the spirit of a panda handstand) quipped cruelly, but truthfully, that Scotland now has more giant pandas than Conservative MP’s. But that’s not the best recent panda joke. The best was from Sandi Toksvig, presenter of a Radio 4 comedy news program around the time when the pandas were being welcomed by huge Edinburgh crowds.

“Though overweight, uninterested in sex, and notorious for their very poor diet,” she said, pausing for exactly the right fraction of a second while we took this in, “they were still very glad to see the pandas arrive.”

The perfectly delivered joke relied on the dangling modifier ambiguity: the though-phrase introduces a coordination of predicative adjectives needing a logical subject. (Who is overweight? Who is is uninterested in sex?) When the main predication comes (glad to see the pandas … ), we get the payoff: The subject can’t be the pandas, it has to be the Scots.

When a boy has essentially the same kind of room for confusing ambiguity: when who was a boy?

And that, I suddenly realized while waiting in line to view the pandas, is the key to why Bouchoux thought these clause-initial modifiers were passives: A logical subject is needed but not supplied. So it’s one more case of someone who hasn’t seen the difference between (i) use of the passive voice and (ii) failure to be maximally explicit about the identity of a subject or agent.

[Thanks to Simon Cauchi for pointing out to me that Arthur Tashiro noted the Bouchoux remark on March 9, 2012, in a post to Indiana University's copyediting-l list (CE-L).]

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