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John Dyson's DON'T LOOK DOWN has a sentence that reads:

The cable heaping on the roof, even a vibration from the men inside, could nudge the 2.4-ton cage into free fall.

The cable heaping on the roof part appears to me a misplaced modifier as it's apparently modified by a vibration, which I don't think should be as such.

I tried comparing the sentence with—

Dagger in hand, he darted across to assault the man.

Here it's clear that Dagger (being) in hand is a participle phrase modifying he.

What am I missing here?

Further, is it OK to use the second comma in the sentence ( appearing before could nudge) or had one best omit it?

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    You are correct in saying that this sentence is unclear. After a second reading, I would interpret (or rewrite it) thus: "The heaping of the cable on its roof, or even a vibration from the men inside, could nudge the 2.4-ton cage into a free fall."
    – RobJarvis
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 14:22
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    No misplaced modifier, but a list of two items that could cause danger. Wind, even rain, could cause danger. The piled cable, even a vibration, could nudge the heavy cage to fall. Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 15:14

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Your analysis of the Dagger sentence is on target, but the Cable sentence is quite different in structure. The two comma-separated phrases that begin the Cable sentence are grammatical subjects for the predicate that follows, while the subject of the Dagger sentence is he, modified as you note by the preceding expression.

Having two subjects thus share a single predicate is a form of zeugma. (It is of Type 3 per the typology in the linked Wikipedia page.)

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  • Thanks a lot, @Brian Donovan!
    – user405662
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 17:59
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This is almost certainly an example of a compound subject with the coordinator or deleted for dramatic (staccato) effect:

The cable heaping on the roof, [or] even a vibration from the men inside, could nudge the 2.4-ton cage into free fall.

A ... or even B ... could do X. ==> A, even B, could do X.

The comma after 'inside' forces the compound subject analysis.

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The mental image I have from this is of a cage (a mine shaft cage) being lowered and sticking in one position; the cable is still paid out from above and heaps on the cage top because the operator does not know the cage has stuck; in consequence, the situation of the occupants is dangerous because even their own small movement (the vibration) might free the cage, leading to its perilous and uncontrolled descent.

{Because of the circumstance of} the cable heaping {and perhaps continuing to heap} on the roof, even a vibration {any small movement} from the men inside could nudge the 2.4-ton cage into free fall.

enter image description here

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  • Thank you very much, @Anton! Superb answer, I appreciate your help!
    – user405662
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 18:00

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