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How to Avoid Dangling Infinitives

If you dangle your infinitives, the grammar police are sure to come knocking on your door. English speakers commonly dangle infinities and believe it or not it really changes the meaning of their sentences. Try this example:

To sew well, a strong light is necessary.

This sentence may sound correct to you. After all, sewing in the dark is hard. But think about the meaning for a moment. Who is sewing? No one, at least the way the sentence is now written. Moving the infinitive may make the sentence sound better to your ears, but the move doesn’t solve the problem:

A strong light is necessary to sew well.

There’s still no one sewing, so the sentence is still incorrect. To fix the problem, you must add a person:

To sew well, you need a strong light. (You are sewing.)
To sew well, sit near a strong light. (You is understood in this command sentence.)
To sew well, everyone needs a strong light. (Everyone is sewing.)
To sew well, Betsy insists on at least a 75-watt bulb. (Betsy is sewing.)

An infinitive at the beginning of a sentence may be legal. Check out this sentence:

To sew well is Betsy’s goal.

In the preceding sentence, to sew well isn’t a description. It’s an activity that is Betsy’s goal. In other words, to sew well is the subject in this sentence. How do you tell the difference between a subject and a description? A subject pairs with a verb (is in the example sentence) and answers the questions who? or whatA description is an add-on, contributing more information about something else in the sentence.

Can you tell which sentence is correct?

A. To enjoy a good cup of coffee, a clean coffee pot is essential.
B. A clean coffeepot is essential to enjoy a good cup of coffee.

Answer. Neither A nor B is correct. (That was one of those annoying teacher tricks just to keep you alert.) Neither sentence has a coffee drinker in it. So who’s enjoying the coffee? No one. A true correction must add a person:

To enjoy a good cup of coffee, you start with a clean coffeepot.
To enjoy a good cup of coffee, caffeine addicts start with a clean coffeepot.
To enjoy a good cup of coffee, Anna starts with a clean coffeepot.
To enjoy a good cup of coffee, start with a clean coffeepot. (Now you [understood in this command sentence] are the coffee drinker.)

One more round: Which sentence is correct?

A. To enjoy his morning coffee was Malachy’s greatest pleasure.
B. To enjoy his morning coffee, Malachy got up an hour earlier than his annoying little brother.

Answer. Both A and B are correct. (Sorry, that was another dirty teacher trick.) In Sentence A, To enjoy his morning coffee is the subject of the verb was. (What was? To enjoy his morning coffee was.) In Sentence B, the infinitive isn't dangling. Malachy is the person who got up early.

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