Grammar Gremlins: Managing Misplaced Modifiers
We have two good reasons for avoiding misplaced modifiers: they affect the meaning of their sentences, and they are all too often unintentionally funny. As writers we hope to say precisely what we mean, and even those of us who strive for humor prefer to reach it on purpose.
The most common form of misplaced modifier is the dangling participle, the “ing” construction our elementary school teachers warned us about, but clauses, phrases, and even plain old adjectives can also land in the wrong place. A modifier is misplaced when it wanders too far from the term it modifies. In most cases, this nomadic tendency causes our modifier to attach itself to the wrong subject entirely.
The cure for misplaced modifiers is careful proofreading. Reading aloud is helpful, but you have to pay attention. Some of my prize howlers come from the sound tracks of documentaries. Perhaps the folks who write narration think that no one who doesn’t see the words will catch them, but listening for misplaced modifiers is a great sport for couch potatoes.
Two of my favorites come from History Channel features on cannibalism and the crash of the Hindenburg, neither topic known for comic aspects.
After fifteen years in prison, the governor pardoned (the cannibal Alfred) Packer. Years ago when I lived in Louisiana, at least one sheriff there was re-elected while serving time in his own jail, but even in Baton Rouge the governor never spent fifteen years in the pen (at least not while he was governor).
Filled with highly flammable hydrogen, the crew (of the Hindenberg) wore felt booties. In this example, the actual subject of the descriptive clause, the zeppelin’s gas bags, doesn’t even make it into the sentence!
Examples abound, because modifiers can be easily misplaced. Fortunately, once you spot the little devils, you can fence them in with good sentence structure.
Decked out in a pale blue costume, her hair shimmered in the sun. Unless our heroine is wearing a hat, her hair isn’t decked out in anything at all. We might try “She wore a pale blue costume and her hair shimmered in the sun,” but these two elements probably don’t even belong in the same sentence. The costume has nothing to do with the hair.
A bit of fun for baseball fans: Joe Smith then hit a single off Jones’ leg, which rolled into right field. I’m no authority on the sport, but I’m pretty sure it was the ball that rolled into right field, not poor Jones’ leg. We all know that. The intended meaning is clear, but the misplaced modifier introduces both unplanned humor and the suspicion that the writer isn’t in control. Although the elements here are more closely related than hair and costumes, the complexity of the idea may demand two sentences. “Joe Smith then hit a single, which rolled into right field, off Jones’ leg” loses its punch, or at least the connection between ball and leg. How about: “Smith then hit a single off Jones’ leg; the ball rolled into right field.”
After years of being lost under a pile of dust, John found all the old records of the club. Well, maybe old John really has been lurking around the library under a pile of dust all these years, but more likely the records were the subject of the dust. “John found all the records of the club, lost for years under a pile of dust” is still a bit suspect. Were the records lost under all that dust, or was it the entire club? Try “John found all the old club records, lost for years under a pile of dust.”
Walking through the door, her coat was caught. Oh, this one is just full of problems. First, of course, the coat didn’t walk through the door, not by itself anyway. Beyond that, the sentence is passive (and not because it contains the verb to be, but that’s a topic for another article). And it’s never a good idea to walk through a door. Open it first. Try “As Mary walked through the doorway, her coat caught on a hinge.”
Remember that present participles (“ing” words) in particular imply simultaneity of action. However we phrase it, that coat went through the doorway and caught on something at the same time. This structure can give you problems.
Crawling out of her tent, Alice pulled on her jeans. Personally, I’d rather put my jeans on inside the tent. But maybe the tent is very small, or Alice is an exhibitionist, so she crawls out and then pulls on the jeans. But pulling on jeans while crawling out of a tent sounds like far too much trouble.
Here are a few more amusing stinkers. Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared. Flying low, a herd of cattle could be seen. Quickly summoning an ambulance, the corpse was carried to the mortuary. Israel has developed a bullet-proof helmet for soldiers made of plastic. Most misplaced modifies aren’t this obvious, or this funny,
Saving her computer file, the article was finished.
Kay Hudson continues to weed misplaced modifiers out of her garden of unpublished manuscripts. She keeps an assortment of grammar books near her computer, including several by Theodore M. Bernstein (The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage; Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage; The Wordwatcher’s Guide to Good Writing & Grammar; and Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins) and the timeless Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which is also available on line at http://www.bartleby.com/.