Editing for Liberty #3: Dangling Modifiers and Political Divisions

Spot the Error

  1. Nicholson amplified that point, telling the crowd that Yanke had one speed for both work and play: peddle to the metal.
  2. His Congressional District was in the State of Washington.
  3. Stepping back and looking at the broad sweep of US history in which the dollar was anchored to gold, its purchasing power was on average constant for large stretches.
  4. Only the Austrian approach offers a different paradigm, and allows us to see just what is wrong with the “aggregate-demand” view of the economy.

Read on to find the answers!

To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize (Political Divisions)

When do we capitalize the names of political divisions like provinces, countries, and empires? Should it be the Ottoman Empire or the Ottoman empire? The City of Algiers or the city of Algiers?

Words denoting political divisions — from empire, republic, and state down to ward and precinct — are capitalized when they follow a name and are used as an accepted part of the name. When preceding the name, such terms are usually capitalized in names of countries but lowercased in entities below the national level (but see 8.51). Used alone, they are usually lowercased. (Chicago 8.55)

Thus, you would write

The Ottoman Empire once spanned three continents. Its western arm included the city of Algiers and bordered on the Sultanate of Morocco.

But note the capitalization in the following example:

The American empire has been around for half a century.

Whether or not you believe there is such a thing as “the American empire,” it is not a commonly recognized name, like the “British Empire,” and therefore the initial letter in “empire” is left lowercase. So, our sentence #2 should read

His congressional district was in the state of Washington.

(Note, however, that when you are talking about the United States, it is the Republic and the Union.)

Grammar: Dangling Modifiers

Walking down the moonlit path, the bushes were frightening.

Dangling modifiers are rampant in everyday writing. A modifier is simply one or more words that describe or clarify another set of one or more words. But when the words to be modified are not properly placed in the same sentence as the modifier, it “dangles,” leaving the sentence with a vague or distorted meaning. In our sentence #3, “stepping back and looking…” is supposed to describe the action of the writer and the readers, but instead it seems to describe the action of the “purchasing power”!

Stepping back and looking at the broad sweep of US history in which the dollar was anchored to gold, its purchasing power was on average constant for large stretches.

Writers often create these dangling modifiers when they’re trying to avoid either repeating the subject or using the passive voice. Unfortunately, these sentences can be hard to catch, because we usually know what the writer means to say. Here’s another example:

By increasing and improving the equipment and machinery at the disposal of workers, their labor becomes more productive.

The sentence ought to reveal who or what is doing the “increasing and improving” after the comma, but instead the next clause changes the subject. This sentence would be clearer as

Increasing and improving the equipment and machinery at the disposal of workers makes their labor more productive.

What about our sentence #3 — how would you change it? Here are two possibilities:

If you step back and look at the broad sweep of US history, you’ll see that when the dollar was anchored to gold its purchasing power was on average constant for large stretches.

The broad sweep of US history shows that, when the dollar was anchored to gold, its purchasing power was on average constant for large stretches.

Whenever you see a present participle (e.g., increasing, improving, stepping back, looking), check that it isn’t part of a dangling modifier.

Homonyms

Here is a spelling problem I once missed in an article:

which put a break on the ability of the largest banks to expand credit…

We need to be especially vigilant for homonym errors, because Word’s spelling check, obviously, won’t help much. And this is the cause of the error in our sentence #1, which should be

Nicholson amplified that point, telling the crowd that Yanke had one speed for both work and play: pedal to the metal.

Compound Predicates

What’s wrong with this sentence? A hint: it’s tiny in size.

When you stop doing economics, and instead wander into mass psychology, anything goes.

This sentence has a compound predicate: the verbs doing and wander share a subject, you, so they shouldn’t be separated by a comma. The sentence should read

When you stop doing economics and instead wander into mass psychology, anything goes.

The same goes for sentence #4 above:

Only the Austrian approach offers a different paradigm and allows us to see just what is wrong with the “aggregate-demand” view of the economy.

It’s especially easy to miss the extra comma when one of the verbs has a direct object. See also Chicago 6.29.


Is there something you’d like to contribute or see covered in Editing for Liberty? Go ahead and post a comment. And if you find a sentence or paragraph that would make for a good “Spot the Error” entry, please send it my way!

2 Comments

Filed under Editing for Liberty

2 responses to “Editing for Liberty #3: Dangling Modifiers and Political Divisions

  1. Pingback: Editing for Liberty #4 | Invisible Order

  2. Pingback: Editing for Liberty #11: (Be)cause & Effect | Invisible Order

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