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Gerald Lushington Technical Writing / Proofreading Services

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Be careful with that otoscope! I mean 'modifier'.

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on February 26, 2013 at 2:05 PM

Some weeks ago I posted a brief comment on a pair of articles on good writing practices.  I recently came across another page (https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/c1_p15.html) that in most respects should qualify as a simple overview of common writing problems and reasonable remedies.  There are basic admonitions regarding the relative perils of first-person voice, contractions, gender specificity, jargon, emotion, split infinitives and so forth, but there is a curious stumble on on issue that I consider to incur the most tangible risk of communicative mayhem:  the dangling modifier.  Specifically, the article cites the following as an example of a dangling modifier:

     "Using an otoscope, her ears were examined for damage."

With the following construct recommended as more logical replacement:

     "Her ears were examined for damage with an otoscope."

At this point, I would ask of my readers the following rhetorical question:  is the above example  a) misguided,  b) indicative of an honest editorial mistake, or  c) an excerpt from some piece about rogue otolaryngologists?

If one asserts that the second sentence construct is logical and does not contain a dangling modifier, then the clear interpretation is that some unfortunate person has had her ears damaged with an otoscope, and some (hopefully more competent) medical technician is now seeking to assess the damage.  Ouch.

Is there anything wrong with the associations conveyed in the first sentence?  In truth it too is an example of a dangling modifier in that "her ear" split the "were examined using an otoscope" clause.  I can't believe that it is as blatant a violation (or makes me as squeemish) as the supposed correction, but to satisfy our need for good writing, let me propose the following:

An otoscope was used to examine her ears for damage.

After all this, I sure hope her ears are okay!




Posts associated with the Lushington technical writing site reflect the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


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