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A Word, Please: Your danglers won’t just fix themselves

Recently, the Los Angeles Times described the movie “Dheepan” as the “Palme d’Or winner about Sri Lankan refugees trying to escape their violent past in France.” That made reader Rod do a double-take.

“The question is where the ‘in France’ should go,” Rod wrote. “There’s a serious difference between a violent past in France and being in France trying to escape a violent past, presumably in Sri Lanka.”

Agreed.

MORE: Read past columns on all things grammar from June Casagrande >>

Whenever a modifying phrase like “in France” sits in a place where it causes even momentary confusion or awkwardness, we call it a dangler.

The most famous of the danglers is the dangling participle, probably because it’s fun to say. But any type of modifying phrase can land in a bad spot, regardless of whether it’s a participial phrase like “walking on the beach,” in which the head word is participle of a verb like “walking” or “awakened,” or a prepositional phrase like “in France,” which hinges on the preposition “in.”

So how to fix our dangler? Sometimes simply moving the phrase will do the trick. Take “I photographed an elephant in my pajamas,” move the prepositional phrase “in my pajamas” next to the person who actually was in his pajamas, and the problem is solved: “In my pajamas, I photographed an elephant.”

Obviously, that doesn’t always produce the most elegant solution. And if fixing danglers were easy, they probably wouldn’t have dangled in the first place.

Often, danglers happen because the sentence started off on the wrong foot, painting the writer into a corner. In those cases, a rewrite is necessary: “The Palme d’Or winner about Sri Lankan refugees fleeing to France to escape their violent past.”

Also in the mailbag this week is a request to revisit the subject of “myself” — a term that, in my experience, can rub a lot of people the wrong way.

The classic example is “Bob or myself will lead the meeting.” People who dislike that say it should simply be “Bob or I” — and they have a point. “I” is a subject. “I will lead the meeting.” It makes no difference if we bring Bob into the mix: “Bob and I will lead the meeting.” Nor does it matter if we use a different conjunction, swapping out “and” for “or”: “Bob or I will lead the meeting.”

“Myself,” along with “himself,” “herself” and “ourselves,” aren’t subject pronouns. Instead, they belong to a group called reflexive pronouns, which have a pretty specific job. They reflect back on the subject of a sentence.

In “Joe saw himself in the mirror,” the subject and the object of the action are really the same guy: Joe. He’s doing the action and having it done to him. That’s when reflexive pronouns are indispensable. After all, what are the alternatives? You can’t use a subject pronoun: “Joe saw he in the mirror.” Object pronouns are no better: “Joe saw him in the mirror.”

But if you want a conservative guideline on how to use “myself” and other reflexives, here it is: Use them only when neither a subject pronoun like “I” nor an object pronoun like “me” works well in the sentence. You can also use them to add emphasis: I, myself, prefer dark chocolate.

“Bob or myself will lead the meeting” isn’t wrong, exactly. As an idiomatic form, the use of “myself” as a subject has a long track record that affords it a certain amount of credibility.

“Critics have frowned on these uses since about the turn of the century, probably unaware that they serve a definite purpose,” notes Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in its discussion of “myself.” But Merriam’s states, “These uses are standard.”

That doesn’t necessarily make them a good choice, though. If you want to be proper, use “myself” only when “I” or “me” just won’t do.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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