Is It Misplaced, Dangling or Just Right: The Modifier Dilemma

Modifier poster-2

Modifiers are another one of those grammar terms we need to pause over and be sure they are right in sentences. Do you recall the old example? “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.” It always made us laugh and was a great example of a literal translation from German to English. Misplaced modifiers are not always so obvious. We could rewrite this sentence as: Throw some hay over the fence for the cow.

Joyce K Ellis, in her booklet 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar; Lessons for authors on the snags of the English language, refers to modifiers as magnets. Modifiers need to be close to the words or phrase they modify. A misplaced modifier can create confusion for the reader. It can be funny as the sentence above or imply a meaning not intended.

Here are some excellent examples of misplaced modifiers from the 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar.

This crane is out of his natural habitat in the same way a misplaced modifier is when place incorrectly in a sentence. Photo from morgurefile.com

This crane is out of his natural habitat in the same way a misplaced modifier is when place incorrectly in a sentence. Photo from morgurefile.com

Misplaced: We asked volunteers to bring cookies for the bake sale at last week’s meeting.

Did you find the misplaced modifier?

Joyce explains. “The prepositional phrase at the last meeting has stuck its nose in the wrong place. It’s ludicrous to ask people to bring cookies for an event that took place the week before, so we move that time designation next to what it modifies. “

Properly placed: At last week’s meeting, we asked volunteers to bring cookies for the bake sale.

Misplaced modifiers will occasionally result in comical, physically impossible descriptions:

Misplaced: Stacy mounted the horse glancing over her shoulder.

Did you laugh at this one?

Properly placed: Glancing over her shoulder, Stacy mounted the horse.

It’s Stacy glancing over her shoulder.

Can you find the misplaced modifier in the next example?

Misplaced: No matter how small, most of us will never forget the first check we received for our writing.

It’s the size of the amount of the check not the size of the writer.

Still misplaced: Most of us will never forget the first check we received for our writing, no matter how small.

Oops! Now we could be talking about the tininess of our handwriting or font.

Properly placed (recasting the entire sentence):

Most of us will never forget our first writing-income check no matter how small the amount.

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Dangling modifiers make me groan. My hubby is always finding them in my work. When it’s dangling, the word it modifies is missing. Below is a clear example from Joyce K. Ellis.

Dangling Modifier: Having laryngitis, my speaking engagement had to be postponed.

As written. The speaking engagement had laryngitis—obviously not what the writer intended. We leave the modifier dangling.

Safely attached: Having laryngitis, I had to postpone my speaking engagement.

Now we have a subject to connect to the modifier.

Again Joyce’s final word on the subject of misplaced modifiers.

Bottom line: Make sure modifiers stick like magnets to their reference point.

Do you have an example of a dangling or misplaced modifier you have written or found published somewhere? Share it in the comments.

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