I was unaware
that infinitive phrases could dangle until an editor pointed this out
to me. The problem is the same as with dangling gerunds and participles:
the phrase introduces an action that should be linked to an actor,
an actor who should appear as the subject of the following clause.
The infinitive dangles or is poorly attached if the subject of the
following clause is someone or something who did not do the action
in the infinitive.
determine whether pH changed through time, soil was sampled
monthly. The actual subject of the main clause
is soil but the implied subject is whoever was determining
Dangling infinitives are very common
in scientific writing because scientists often use passive
voice to describe methods; the actor implied by the infinitive
simply dissappears in the passive voice clause. Dangling infinitives
are so common that few would recognize them as being wrong, and
many would argue that they are not wrong, that the sentence form
(infinitive plus passive voice) is now standard in scientific writing
and that the infinitive invokes an actor but does not require that
the actor be explicitly named.
The easiest way to correct a dangling
infinitive is to use active voice.
determine whether pH changed through time, we sampled the soil
monthly. But first person/active voice can be
jarring if the paper has not used first person and if the Methods
are mostly in passive voice. Perhaps this is yet another reason
to use more active voice and more first person in scientific writing.
How about relocating the infinitive
was sampled monthly to determine whether pH changed through
time. According to the staff at the Chicago
Manual of Style, relocation doesn't help, i.e., the infinitive
solutions are problematic.
pH through time were determined by sampling soil monthly.
changes in pH through time, soil was sampled monthly.
As I indicated, dangling infinitives are very common in scientific writing. If I indicate that your paper contains dangling infinitives, you could decide to leave them as they are, especially if they are in the Methods section or if they otherwise concern methods. Few reviewers, editors, and readers will consider them a problem. Still, you should recognize them and understand how to change them if you want to or if you are forced to by an editor.
Update: On 21 November 2010, I was consulting the 7th edition (2006) of Scientific Style and Format: the CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, which is published by the Style Manual Committee of the Council of Science Editors. This book is considered authoritative with respect to scientific writing. I came upon the following dangling infinitives:
Page 145: To avoid potential confusion about the meaning of the comma, the following style is recommended. (on page 145)
To facilitate prompt binding of the issues of a volume, the title page, the volume table of contents, …., are usually published as the end pages of the last issue of the volume. (on page 448).