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I just got back a paper my teacher had corrected, and she labeled the word 'be' in the following sentence as a 'dangling modifier':

How one learns from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled his or her life will be.

Not only am I confused as to whether this classifies as a dangling modifier, I am not sure I see any errors in the grammar at all.

So my questions are:

  • What error or awkwardness is present in the above sentence?
  • Regardless of whether any errors exist, how could the sentence be rearranged or reworded to keep the same meaning?
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    It might not be quite so jarring to everyone, but to me, using “his or her” as the possessive of “one” is certainly ungrammatical—what's wrong with “one’s”? That's nothing to do with dangling modifiers, though. Then again, nor is anything else in your sentence, which is perfectly grammatical apart from the possessive. Your teacher was either too tired when she graded your paper, or she doesn't know what a dangling modifier is. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '14 at 0:41
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    @JanusBahsJacquet "Your teacher was either too tired ... or she doesn't know ... " -- or both. – StoneyB Sep 10 '14 at 1:18
  • I say stick to your guns! Your phrasing has more "pop" to it than any of the suggested "improvements". – Hot Licks Feb 26 '15 at 23:37
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Take a look here to read a description of a dangling modifier (which I don't think your query sentence contains).

There is a problem with that sentence, however. This is that the subject is not consistent, and to that extent your teacher was on the right track.

Specifically, one does not go with his or her. To remedy this, you will have to commit yourself to one or the other. Here are the possibilities that would work:

  1. How one learns from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled one's life will be.

  2. How a person learns from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled {his or her / their} life will be.

  3. How someone learns from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled their life will be.

Of these, 1) seems rather old-fashioned today, but both 2) and 3) sound just fine to me.

  • I'm not sure I agree with 1) being old-fashioned. In fact, I'm fairly sure I don't agree with it. It's higher register and more formal, to be sure, but I don't think it's old-fashioned at all—it would be a perfectly natural thing to write in an article, for example, or to say as part of a prepared speech. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '14 at 8:26
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - 'One' is used far less in English than 'man' is used in Danish, which I suspect has skewed your perception. You claim "it would be a perfectly natural thing to write in an article [...] or to say as part of a prepared speech". An academic article, possibly, where a dry and austere tone may still be acceptable. But when a journalist resorts to 'one', they are usually putting on airs. I also challenge you to compare the frequency of 'one' versus 'you' in political speeches -- even ones made by a US president -- and then come back here and make the same claim about speeches. – Erik Kowal Sep 10 '14 at 8:53
  • Danish man carries no connotations of higher register like one does (though it is still losing ground to du), that is true; and of course in some contexts, one is certainly ‘airsy’ and archaicising (“One does not like to complain, but …” is one (!) such usage). But in a sentence like the one given here, I find it formal, but perfectly acceptable in modern usage with no archaicising intentions. Of course, you could have been used just as well, and would far more commonly be so. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '14 at 9:02
  • I've got to disagree. The examples you give above do not have the "poetic" feel of the original -- they're "flat" and "dull". The original is more vibrant. – Hot Licks Feb 26 '15 at 23:36
  • @HotLicks - The original is not at all 'poetic'. It also seems highly unlikely that whoever wrote it had anything approaching poetry in mind; it was part of a classroom grammar exercise, for heaven's sake! As for myself, I wasn't going for 'poetry', but purely for clarity, in line with the OP's request. If I did not meet your elevated standards, I apologize. Please also disregard the fact that the OP accepted my answer. :) – Erik Kowal Feb 27 '15 at 2:32
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A very minor change:

How a person learns from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled the person's life will be.

I can't see the dangling modifier in the original.

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    More elegantly, perhaps: How a person learns from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled their life will be. – Erik Kowal Sep 10 '14 at 1:26
  • or "... how fulfilled that person's life will be." – mirkastath Nov 15 '18 at 7:17
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How you learn from these experiences will ultimately determine how fulfilled your life will be.

Engage your readers! Don't keep us a word's length away.

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How one learns from these experiences will ultimately determine life fulfillment.

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If "be" is the problem, I feel your question (how to rephrase) has not been answered. I would look for a noun as a subject to "determine", e.g.:

How one learns from these experiences ultimately determines the degree of one's life fulfillment / the level of fulfillment in one's life.

I have also changed the tense of the verb because it feels more sensible to me. You may replace "one's" with "his or her" or "their".

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