No Dangling Or Squinting, Please

I used to think English was easy. I spoke it and I wrote in it. End of story.

Sure, there are some weird spellings but that’s because, as a language, it’s a bit of a mash-up. Some words come from Latin, some are Anglo Saxon, there’s a dash of French, a few words stolen from Gaelic, Hindi etc. But having this rich and varied vocabulary is what makes English such a pleasure to use.

It’s a language that can be extremely flexible and subtle. You can write one sentence in many different ways, with a wide choice of words and the end results may all say exactly the same thing – or all be slightly different. A lot of English words have many different nuances depending on how they’re used.

But that’s just vocabulary.

A few years ago, I retrained to teach English as a foreign language and realised I was only scratching the surface with my knowledge.

Apart from the difference between noun, verb and adjective, I wasn’t taught any grammar at school. At the age of 40-plus, I had never heard of past participles, let alone the workings of passive or perfect tenses, future conditionals or non-dependent relative clauses.

Now – having decided to teach this stuff for a living – I’ve got a much better grasp of the mechanics of English. However, the learning curve certainly isn’t over.

This week, I’ve been using a programme called Grammarly to analyse some of my writing – and have discovered even more esoteric terms to bandy around!

Grammarly flagged up a few of my sentences and questioned whether they contained ‘dangling’ or ‘squinting modifiers’. Huh?! I know what a modifier is but ‘dangling’ and ‘squinting’?

Anyway, I’m now a bit wiser so in case you want to know, here goes:

A ‘dangling modifier’ is one that isn’t obviously linked to the main clause in a sentence. For example:

Aged five, my parents bought a house.

Obviously, the parents weren’t five and this is a problem with context. The modifier ‘aged five’ relates to the person who is the main subject of the text as a whole, but isn’t mentioned in this particular sentence.

A ‘squinting modifier’ is one that could apply to either the part of a sentence immediately before it or the part that follows. For example:

‘Doing fifty press ups rapidly builds up your muscles.’

Does this mean you’re supposed to do the press ups fast, or are we talking about how quickly your muscles grow?

Whether a writer really needs to know and understand all these terms is a matter of debate. The good thing, though, is that setting Grammarly on my writing is making me look a lot more closely at my words. Am I saying what I want to say… and will others understand it how I mean them to understand it?

It’s an ongoing battle but one worth fighting. Even if you can afford to pay a professional editor, as a writer I’d say it’s still worth getting down to the nuts and bolts of the English language.  If I understand how my language works, that can only improve my ability to express myself and make me a better writer.

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7 responses to “No Dangling Or Squinting, Please”

  1. Sharon Bonin-Pratt says :

    You can’t get away with saying, “You know what I mean,” especially if you are a writer. You must write exactly what you mean. Good advice, good article.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Thanks – glad you liked it.
      I think realising that you need to explain yourself to others can be one of the hardest tasks. Most of us start off writing for our own pleasure – and we can do what we want then.
      But if we want others to read our work – particularly if we want them to pay for it – then we’ve got to work a lot harder.

      • Sharon Bonin-Pratt says :

        Absolutely true. I work very hard for that reason. I want people to be intrigued by my writing, to laugh, think, wonder, respond. I don’t write for me. And when I committed to writing for others, my writing improved. (At least so I think.)

  2. Juliette says :

    Good points! I’m going to pass this on to my writing friends.

  3. belindawilliamsbooks says :

    Shudder. Those squinting modifier messages on Grammarly made my head hurt. In fact, I think you’ve described what they are far better than they did, well done!

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Happy if it made sense. I did have to read a bit about them to make sure it sank in.
      I trained as a journalist originally and it’s a good career if you want to learn how to skim facts from various sources and then summarise them!

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