Word Court

By Barbara Wallraff

CATHY CIKRA of Hartville, Ohio, writes: "A colleague and I have a dispute about 'dangling' participles at the ends of sentences. He takes an unyielding line against them. I've provided him with copious evidence of their perfectly clear use—for instance, in The New York Times. I've also found a defense of them in Bryan A. Garner's Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. Garner cites the following as acceptable: 'The boy ran out of the house crying.' My colleague says that my evidence is just proof of the grammatical deterioration of American writers and that the usage is wrong, especially in academic writing. Am I totally off base here?"

No. Your co-worker would have a point if he were arguing that a participle or participial phrase can go wrong at the end of a sentence, and that this problem isn't always acknowledged. Of a dozen usage manuals from the past fifty years that I checked, only six mention that danglers (which may or may not involve participles) can lurk somewhere in a sentence besides at the beginning. One of the six, Theodore M. Bernstein's Careful Writer, gives the example "The victory was his seventh in a row and his tenth since last dropping a decision last September." The problem with dropping, though, isn't that the noun it modifies is too far away. The problem is that the sentence doesn't include any noun or pronoun that it could modify. Who or what dropped that decision? Why, he did. But he isn't in the sentence.

It's also true that participles can dangle even when they do have something to modify. (From Bernstein again: "Lying astride the Quebec-Labrador boundary, a prospector looking for gold found the ore in what is known as the Labrador Trough.") But "The boy ran out of the house crying" doesn't bring to mind an image of a house in tears. It's fine.

Your co-worker would also have a point if he said that a century ago, usage authorities were warier of participles toward the ends of sentences than they are now. Is that evidence of "grammatical deterioration"? I suppose. But the flexibility that English sentence structure allows us is widely considered a good thing—better, at any rate, than our having to maintain a rigid word order. We can say, Crying, the boy ran out of the house." We can say, "The boy ran, crying, out of the house." And we can say, "The boy ran out of the house crying." None of these versions will confuse anyone, and none of them will make readers burst out laughing. One of the main reasons to avoid danglers is to keep from making oneself ridiculous. That may also be a reason not to go overboard in avoiding them.

LORRAINE CHARLTON, of Guilford, Connecticut, writes: "I recently heard the BBC correspondent Katty Kay say on an NPR show, The idea of objectivity, or even striving for objectivity, almost sounds quaint in mainstream media today—and it shouldn't do.' It shouldn't do what? I lived in the U.K. for four years, and I heard that kind of construction all the time. I can't abide it. Beyond that it seems to be customary in British English, is there any valid reason for it?"

Let me explain. To which you might respond, "Please do." Do what? Explain, of course. Even in American English, do serves as a sort of pronoun for verbs. That is, we use it instead of the original verb to avoid repeating ourselves or each other. The British usage authority R. W. Burchfield, in his book The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, notes that British English speakers commonly use do after have or a "modal verb," like should, "to represent an earlier predicate: … Adults don't believe children but they should do." To American ears, such dos sound superfluous, but they're not illogical.

LARRY RIBNICK, of Crawford, Colorado, writes: "I was taught that the short form of until was til. Until today, I was irritated by the many modern writers who use till instead. But I just read a poem by William Butler Yeats, 'The Song of Wandering Aengus,' that uses till as the short form. Now I'm confused. Did Yeats get it wrong?"

No, Yeats had it right, and whoever taught you about 'til had it wrong. Till is actually an older word than until. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, till was used in Old English (spoken until about 1150) to mean a "fixed point, station." Untill turned up in Middle English times (spoken from then until about 1500), when it meant "up to, as far as + till." But till—or tille or tylle or til—continued to be used, developing much the same meaning as untill. Today the major American dictionaries all show a preference for till, or they call 'til a variant of till.

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

This article available online at: