kitchen table math, the sequel: dangling modifiers on SAT writing

## Monday, May 30, 2011

### dangling modifiers on SAT writing

Say you're taking the SAT next Saturday, and you want to know the one thing you can do to improve your writing score.

For my money, the answer is: figure out dangling modifiers.

Dangling modifiers are ubiquitous on the test, and they are especially ubiquitous in the multiple choice selections. Not infrequently, you can identify the correct answer simply by identifying the only answer that is not a dangling modifier.

This is so often the case that I now routinely read through the multiple choice options and cross out all the dangling modifiers (and the comma splices) before I even bother thinking about what's wrong with the sentence. I don't know whether that's a good idea for everyone, but it's a shortcut for me.

My goal with C. is to get him to the point where dangling modifiers 'jump' off the page at him, which is what they do with me.

Here's an example of what I mean (based on College Board materials, but clunkier):
One of the first women to serve in Congress, more than twenty significant laws were introduced by Jane Doe, making her a leader in her era.

(A) more than twenty significant laws were introduced by Jane Doe, making her

(B) Jane Doe's introduction of more than twenty significant laws made her

(C) introducing more than twenty significant laws made Jane Doe

(D) her introduction of more than twenty significant laws led to Jane Doe being considered

(E) Jane Doe introduced more than twenty significant laws, making her
Choices A, B, C, and D all contain dangling modifiers. You don't have to read the final sentence to make sure it's correct because a dangling modifier is always wrong. Choice E has to be right, and it is.

The problem with a dangling modifier is that it isn't close enough to the thing it modifies, which is presumably why it is said to be 'dangling.' A dangling modifier is not firmly attached to the thing it modifies.

When I get further along with Martha Kolln, I'll come back to this, but for now I'll say that generally speaking a modifier needs to be directly 'next door' to the thing it is modifying.*

Since the phrase "one of the first women" modifies (adds information to) Jane, Jane has to come next in the sentence -- and just Jane, not Jane-apostrophe-s. Jane-apostrophe-s isn't Jane-the-person; Jane-apostrophe-s is a modifier, too.

So:

Choice A is wrong because "One of the first women to serve in Congress" modifies "more than twenty significant laws," which amounts to saying that the laws were women.

Sometimes you can see this better when you cross out the 'extra' words:

(A) One of the first women to serve in Congress, more than twenty significant laws

means:

the laws, not Jane, were the first women to serve in Congress

(B) One of the first women to serve in Congress, Jane Doe's introduction of more than twenty significant laws made her

means:

the introduction of laws was one of the first women

(C) One of the first women to serve in Congress, introducing more than twenty significant laws made Jane Doe a

means:

introducing [20 laws] was a woman

(D)  One of the first women to serve in Congress, her introduction of more than twenty significant laws allowed Jane Doe to be considered a

means:

the introduction was a woman

(E) One of the first womento serve in Congress, Jane Doe introduced more than twenty significant laws

means:

Jane Doe was [one of the first] women, which is correct.

I am positive that sentence diagramming would help with SAT writing.

Too bad no one knows how to do it.

update: Martha Kolln on dangling modifiers:

The participle can open the sentence only when its subject is also the subject of the sentence and is located in regular subject position. Otherwise, the participle dangles.

* I'm sure there's more to it that that.

satverbaltutor said...

I just wanted to point out one little thing about SAT dangling modifier questions, at least the harder ones. The College Board usually provides *two* answers that correctly fix the dangling modification (occasionally they'll be nice and give you one, but that does tend to be the exception rather than the rule).

Of those two, however, the shorter one is probably right about 90% of the time; the longer one tends to have a major grammatical error (e.g. it lacks a main verb) that turns it into a fragment.

About the whole diagramming sentences thing: it's hard and often boring, ergo no contemporary teacher who wanted good reviews would dare to subject a class to it. Besides, most of them probably couldn't do it themselves either.

MagisterGreen said...

Lots of Latin teachers still diagram and teach it, either explicitly (as I often do) or implicitly. You cannot really do Latin without internalizing at least a little bit of diagramming, which is probably one of the major reasons, apart from vocabulary building, why Latin students tend to outperform the average on the English SAT section.

Debbie Stier said...

I think I need to sentence diagram, because when I read *about* a dangling modifier, I GET IT.

But then when I go to try out a few, I get all jumbled up and they don't jump out at me at all.

It feels like some weird brain glitch that they don't jump off the page for me.

I'm trying to figure out why I don't see them easily.

Strangely, I think the name, "Dangling Modifier" doesn't work for me. I imagine it differently than it acactually is.

PWN the SAT said...

I wrote up a few more examples of DM questions this morning: http://blog.pwnthesat.com/2011/05/lets-talk-about-dangling-modifiers.html

FedUpMom said...

It's not quite right to say that "Jane has to come next in the sentence." For instance, this sentence is grammatically correct:

One of the first women to serve in Congress, the brilliant, articulate Jane Doe ...

Or this:

One of the first women to serve in Congress, and one of the first to introduce major legislation, the brilliant Jane Doe ...

Catherine Johnson said...

I just added Martha Kolln's definition to the post and am adding it to the comments, too:

"The participle can open the sentence only when its subject is also the subject of the sentence and is located in regular subject position. Otherwise, the participle dangles."

Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln

Catherine Johnson said...

Magister Green - interesting!

I LOVE sentence diagramming & have been intending to teach myself how to do it for years now.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was talking to Debbie about this last night: the reason dangling modifiers don't trip us up is that we're usually reading material familiar to us & we get the meaning.

In my work, however, I constantly have to read published research that is EXTREMELY difficult for me to follow. One of the major cues I use to try to suss out the meaning is grammatical structure.

Independent George said...

Thanks for posting this. I must admit that everything I know about grammar is purely by instinct. I'd have a lot of trouble explaining why the other sentences were wrong, except that they just looked ugly, and obscured the meaning.

The only specific point I can make is about the difference between (B) and (E) - purely as a matter of style, I prefer 'direct' sentences to 'indirect' ones. And even now, I can't give you the technical explanation - it just looks too cumbersome to do it the other way.

Catherine Johnson said...

everything I know about grammar is purely by instinct

Me, too!

I started learning formal grammar last fall when I began teaching composition at a local college (and, yes, this means colleges have people teaching writing who don't know formal grammar....)

You can't stand in front of a class and say, "This is wrong because it sounds wrong and I would never write it this way."

Bonnie said...

We had to diagram sentences back when I was in school. I thought it was pretty useless. It wasn't connected to anything else, so none of us internalized the technique.

I learned grammar mainly by learning two foreign languages as a kid. I learned to write in AP English, where we had to write an essay every week. Since the class was small (I think somewhere between 15 to 20 kids), the teacher was able to give us extensive feedback every week. She had us write in a new style each week, which was even better. For example, one week we read Mark Twain and then had to produce a satirical essay. Another week, we read an opinion column by a noted writer, and then wrote our own opinion pieces. This is truly where I learned to write - I never took another comp course, and I made it through many college courses on the basis of my writing abilities (don't take my writing style here as indicative of my formal style!)

Catherine Johnson said...

David Mulroy says that he uses sentence diagrams when translating ancient Greek texts.

I bet I posted that passage somewhere on the blog...

Writing an essay every week doesn't directly address the sentence, which I discovered only this year, when I began to do some reading about grammar, is the core unit of written expression.

TerriW said...

Writing an essay every week doesn't directly address the sentence, which I discovered only this year, when I began to do some reading about grammar, is the core unit of written expression.

Hey, Catherine -- did you get the Great Courses series about sentences? (I have a vague memory of this.) If so, how was it? I've been circling around it for awhile, debating whether to get it.

Catherine Johnson said...

I did & I only watched TWO LECTURES!

They were fabulous ---- !

Linda Seebach said...

6/2 The trouble with Reed-Kellogg sentence diagramming, as it was originally invented, and as it was still being taught when I was in middle school 50-plus years ago, is that it is woefully inadequate to deal with the real complexities of English syntax. That may not matter in middle school, where only a very limited variety of syntactic structures are considered in any case, and where many students read neither well nor much, hardly write at all and (in many cases) lack the kind of intellectual curiosity that makes bright children try to figure out How Things Work.

Linguists use tree diagrams. Slightly simplified to a level suitable for middle schools, they wouldn't be much harder to learn than traditional sentence diagramming, and they have the immense advantages of scaling up to any level of complexity an adult writer needs and being readily adapted to other languages with very different syntax if you need to do that.

One of the linguistics blogs I read recently had a couple of posts about diagramming vs. tree diagramming, and that wold be a good place to start