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Anacoluthon: A stylistic error

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Posted on 
April 6, 2021

In my post Make an impression with stylistic devices, I described some of the stylistic devices that all of us use: comparison, metaphor, metonymy, etc. But there are others that you need to be aware of because they’re considered to be stylistic errors. Today, I’m writing about anacoluthon, which is often seen in English writing in the form of “dangling modifiers.”

No, anacoluthon isn’t a type of anaconda

Anacoluthon is a breakdown in the structure of a sentence. It’s heading in one direction and changing your mind halfway through. In other words, anacoluthon occurs when the ideas aren’t connected. Some writers use it to surprise or confuse their readers. Here’s an example:

Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.

This quote, from French thinker Blaise Pascal, surprises the reader because they expect “it,” which refers to “Cleopatra’s nose,” to be the subject of the verb “would have been changed.”

Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, would have changed the whole face of the world. (her nose would have changed…)

That’s how syntax works in English. The verb in the introductory clause (“had … been”) and the verb in the main clause (“would have changed”) must have the same subject. Playing with this syntax leads to a breakdown in the structure.

If Pascal did it, then why is it an error?

Anacoluthon is considered to be an error because it results in sentences that don’t follow the logic of English grammar. Anacoluthon can certainly be used to create an intentional stylistic effect, but it becomes an issue when it creates an unintentional effect. In short, anacoluthon is problematic because it can have secondary effects.

Secondary effects? But what do they have to do with grammar?

By “secondary effects,” I mean unintentional effects that interfere with the reader’s ability to understand the message.

In English writing, a common type of anacoluthon is the dangling modifier. In sentences with dangling modifiers, the subject of the main clause and the subject of the modifying clause or phrase aren’t the same. The following are some examples of the secondary effects of dangling modifiers.

Secondary effects of dangling modifiers
Effect Example Explanation
Ambiguity An excellent student, the teacher recognized Alex in front of the class. It’s unclear whether Alex or the teacher is an excellent student.
Contradiction The parents punished the children after having horsed around all day. This sentence suggests that the parents horsed around, even though it was the children.
Illogicality Unsold, she called a real estate agent. It’s the property that hasn’t sold, not the owner (“she”).

How to be smarter than Pascal

Here’s the rule:

The introductory clause and the main clause must have the same subject.

There are several strategies to achieve this.

Change the subject (and the verb) in the main clause

Incorrect:
As a follow-up to our discussion, you will find the attached report.

Correct:
As a follow-up to our discussion, I am sending you the attached report.
(The introductory clause and the main clause now have the same subject: I am following up on our discussion and I am sending you….)

Rearrange the elements

Incorrect:
Written by the committee, I am giving you the report.

Correct:
I am giving you the report written by the committee.

Replace a verb in the infinitive with a noun

Incorrect:
The report will be sent to management to approve the changes.

Correct:
The report will be sent to management for approval of the changes.

Using these three strategies will help you avoid structural errors.

If you’re looking for a way to practice identifying dangling modifiers, I’d recommend taking the quiz Dangling modifiers 1 from the Language Portal of Canada.

You can also read the following articles on the Language Portal of Canada: “The Elusive Dangling Modifier” (from Peck’s English Pointers) and “dangling modifiers” (from Writing Tips Plus). For more information on anacoluthon, check out Brian Mossop’s article “Understanding Poorly Written Source Texts” (from Favourite Articles).

Adapted by Anne-Marie Tugwell, Language Portal of Canada

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand has been an English-to-French translator for the Government of Canada since 2009. She specializes in employment, training and project management. In addition to translation, she studied creative writing and music: her tickets to another life in which she would spend her time writing works of poetry, fantasy and science fiction.

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Good, solid advice with good, solid examples!

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