Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Improve your writing by removing dangling modifiers

Communicating concepts and results in a cogent manner is a very important skill, and unfortunately is not emphasized enough in Academia. As a result, I take an active interest in improving the quality of my writing, not just in the posts to this blog but also in the large amount of technical writing I do. This means that I am careful to notice any portions of text that I suspect of being incorrect or ambiguous and follow up immediately with a search for a clarification.

As an example, I was working on my dissertation today and encountered a use of a Latin expression (i.e.) but was unsure whether it should be italicized or not. I found no general answer online, but it appears safe to leave it unformatted unless a journal or editor requires it. More importantly, though, in my search I came across this link on dangling modifiers, a term which I was unfamiliar with. So, I decided to peruse the webpage out of curiosity.

I found that a dangling modifier is a word or phrase that describes the wrong subject in a sentence. In other words, it implies a subject other than the one that is actually stated. As I read, I realized that they are usually manifest in an erroneous use of the passive voice, the voice that many scientists, including myself, employ liberally within their technical writing.

The first example given on the website is the sentence "Using the survey data, the effects of education on job satisfaction were examined." The dangling modifier, "using the survey data," implies that the scientists use the data, yet this phrase is grammatically (and incorrectly) modifying "the effects."

Unfortunately, this is a very common practice in my writing which I anticipate will be very difficult to overcome. Principally, I can avoid it by using more of the active voice, which, though it implies some partiality, appears as a stronger form of statement. I don't think that this will be easy given that my adviser and other senior researchers often review and modify my writing. Since the passive voice is so entrenched in modern technical writing, it will take some effort to surmount the opinions of my peers.