Beware the dastardly dangling participle

Grammar and syntax can be funny things. You can have two sentences that appear to be identical, aside from some subtle switches in word order, but they may mean very different things.

Take this sentence: “Towering above the company’s production facility, our technician inspected the smokestack.” Or this one: “Born in Schenectady, the inventor’s first patent was for an improved veeblefetzer.”

At first glance, both sentences might look okay to you, but their dangling participles change their meanings. That’s because they separate the subject and the modifier that intends to describe that subject.

In the first sentence, you’re assuming that the smokestack towers over the plant, but the way the sentence is worded, it’s actually the technician who must be some gargantuan being. The correct way to word it would be something like “Our technician inspected the smokestack, which towered above the company’s production facility.”

As worded, the second sentence suggests that the patent — and not the inventor — arrived in Schenectady. This type of wording is much clearer: “The inventor, who was born in Schenectady, earned his first patent for an improved veeblefetzer.”

Subtle changes, yes, but they have a profound effect on accuracy and meaning.