WordBird Tips: Disembodied Body Parts

WordBird Tips: Disembodied Body Parts

One of my favorite grammar errors is the dangling modifier, where a verb or adjective adheres or phrase itself to the next noun, even when it shouldn’t.

The results are often hilarious. A good example is a line from the Lady Gaga song “Summer Boy”:

“My martini glistens / while checking out other guys.”

The implication is that the martini is checking out other guys.

A Related Issue

Another one of my favorite grammatical problems is the “disembodied body part,” which crops up far more frequently than you would think.

It’s somewhat related to the dangling modifier, in the sense the noun/verb pairing leads to some hilarious implications. The difference is the dangling modifier indicates a problem with parsing. A noun and verb end up too close together, with the result the verb “attaches” itself to the wrong noun. In the Gaga example, “I” can be implied or assumed. Because it’s not restated, however, “checking out” (the verb in the second clause) attaches itself to the closest noun: “my martini.”

The disembodied body part can imbue eyes, hands, and feet with sentience, much the same way the dangling modifier gives Lady Gaga’s martini the ability to check out guys. The disembodied body part differs because there’s no parsing error. The noun and verb go together because there’s no other way to interpret the sentence. There’s often no other noun for the verb to attach to.

How Does That Happen?

This grammatical construction takes a body part noun—such as eye, foot, or hand—and pairs it with a verb. In some cases, we can get away with this: “My hands shook.”

The problem occurs when the verb implies the body part is acting of its own accord.

            “My hand grabbed the backpack.”

            “My eyes looked at him.”

A Small Alteration

While grammatically correct, these two sentences imply the body parts are sentient and can act as they will. A simple change should demonstrate the problem clearly:
            “I grabbed the backpack.”

            “I looked at him.”
When we replace the body parts nouns with “I” (or any other pronoun), the sentence still makes sense. If you can use a pronoun in place of the body part noun, then the verb you’re using likely implies the noun’s sentience. That is, the verb implies the noun can think and act on its own.

When the Body Part Is the Right Noun

In some cases, you’d be wrong to use “I” or another pronoun. The body part noun can actually be correct.
            “My hand wrapped around the handle of the backpack.”

            “I wrapped around the handle of the backpack.”
In this example, replacing “my hand” with “I” makes no sense. In this case, the verb/body part noun pairing is fine, because the verb isn’t imply the noun is sentient. This also happens in this sentence:
            “My eyes watered.”
            “I watered.”
The phrase “I watered” doesn’t make sense. The reader is left asking “you watered what?” The verb is fine to use with the body parts noun.

Solving the Problem

Sometimes, you can solve this issue by switching the verb. In other cases, you must switch the noun.
            “My eyes crept over him.”
This is a pretty creepy sentence, but if we switch the noun …
            “My gaze crept over him.”
… the sentence is much less weird.
The best solution to this issue is often to add in a pronoun. Don’t say “my head turned to the side,” but “I turned to the side.” Other revisions could include “I turned my head” or “I turned my head to the side.” Unless someone or something else (such as an unseen force) is controlling the character, “my head turned to the side” implies the character has no control over their head. It’s acting of its own accord.

Deploy with Care

Sometimes, this construction is okay. Phrases such as “my hand fell” or “my hand brushed against” are fine, even though you can swap the body part noun for a pronoun.
And, as a final note, try to avoid constructions such as “my hand felt” or “my eyes saw,” which are usually redundant. There are certain contexts when they may not be, but on the whole, they’re best avoided.

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