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Grammar check: Dangling modifiers kills clarity

By Kodi Barth

You should, as a good writer, from time to time grab the book, When Words Collide, a Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style. You should do so even just to smooch the covers and ripple through the pages like a master shuffler would a deck of cards at a high-stakes card came.

It would qualify as good habit. Because you just might run into this thing, dangling modifiers, which romp into newspaper writing in this town so often, without anyone taking notice.

What the heck is it? “A modifier ‘dangles’ when what it’s supposed to modify is not part of the sentence.” – Page 142 (5th edition, by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald).

An example promptly offered:

After studying for more than three years, Spanish came easily to him.

Clearly, Spanish did not study for more than three years […]. The sentence needs to be reconstructed so the introductory phrase clearly modifies the correct word […]”

After studying for more than three years, he found Spanish easy to master. – Page 143.

Now sample these in our newspapers:

  • Daily Nation, “Ruaraka woman accused of transferring Sh120,000 from friend’s M-Pesa account” (October 19, 2023):

Itemo discovered the following day that the money had been stolen while making some payments.

Who was making some payments, the money or Itemo?

  • Daily Nation: “Those we lost in Mashujaa Day stampede in Kericho” (October 21, 2023):

Questions about the security officers’ ability to manage the crowd abound.

It is questions that abound. Not ability to manage crowd. The correct expression is: “Questions abound…”

  • Daily Nation, “Roads to prosperity: Mwai Kibaki’s legacy continues to bear fruit” (June 5, 2023):

Described by former President Mwai Kibaki as a source of national pride during its launch in November 2012, three years after its groundbreaking, the 50km-long road was a first-of-its-kind modern highway in the country.

First, that is a tortured sentence. But was the road a source of pride during its launch? Or did Kibaki while launching the road describe it as a source of national pride?

  • The Standard, “Raila Odinga’s bodyguard speaks of 72 hours of terror after abduction” (July 31, 2023):

For a man who has worked with the ODM leader for more than a decade, he said the 72-hour ordeal was the worst experience in his life, adding it was matter of life and death.

Who experienced the worst experience in his life, the bodyguard or the ODM leader?

The verdict? Dangling modifiers clouds a story. They kill clarity.

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