Monday, June 4, 2012

Grammar ABCs: M is for Misplaced Modifiers

Allowing Joe to reach for me, he cradled me in his arms.

Is there something wrong with this sentence?

The phrase “allowing Joe to reach for me” modifies the noun that follows: he. So what this sentence says is that he (Joe) was allowing himself to cradle “me”. The fix: I allowed Joe to reach for me and he cradled me in his arms. OR: Reaching for me, Joe cradled me in his arms.

The arrangement of words in a sentence is an important clue to their relationships. Modifiers will be confusing if the reader can’t connect them to the words they modify. A modifier is a phrase that describes something.

They can result in sometimes unintentional humor, such as this example in the book Sin and Syntax: “FOR SALE: Mahogany table by a lady with Chippendale legs” (The lady has Chippendale legs?)

Or Groucho Marx’s: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know” (He did intentionally misplace the phrase “in my pajamas” to make the joke.) In this sentence, he illustrates that the meaning comes across as if the elephant was wearing Groucho’s pajamas.

Another example from Sin and Syntax quotes a student who wrote this: Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. This sentence suggests that Lincoln traveled on the back of an envelope. Fix: Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg.

Simple word placement can also alter the meaning of a sentence: As Sue walked home, she found a gold man’s watch. (Gold modifies or describes “man”, not the watch.) Correct: As Sue walked home, she found a man’s gold watch.

Here’s a link to an exercise to see how well you spot the misplaced modifiers. Have fun! 

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Ah, yes, I seriously dislike sentences that begin with -ing. They have a particular sound to them that I find so jarring.

  2. This is a fun post, Heidi, but one with a very serious message for writers. Proper word order and good sentence structure are essential elements of effective writing. While the examples in your article may bring a smile to the lips, they also may inspire the reader to close the book -- permanently. In other words, attach those dangling modifiers to something that makes sense, and make sure the word order delivers the intended information to the reader.

    Thank you for this excellent reminder!

  3. I seem to have built-in radar for misplaced modifiers and get giggles all the time. Ing words, yes. Jarring people is a bad thing, Elle. LOL. Canning them isn't nice either. Boiling them first is what really makes me cringe though. Ewww.

  4. I can be really bad at this and so I think I'll pick up the book Sin and Syntax. Thanks for all the humorous points.

  5. I never have a problem when writing with misplaced modifiers.

  6. Great examples, made be really and truly laugh out loud.

  7. I love finding misplaced modifiers. They can yield such hysterical results.

  8. I still think I hold the gold medal for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages. Thank goodness for crit partners who made sure that one never saw print.


  9. LOL Terry--love it. I run into many beginning writers who have this problem. While I agree beginning sentences with "ing" phrases raised a "Beginner" red flag, I think that they are OK occasionally, just for a change of rhythm. (And, as long as they modify the right thing!)

  10. Elle, I have another writer friend who also hates those sentences that begin with an ing word. I use them sparingly as I think they are definitely overused.

    Dani, I choked on my coffee when I read your comment.

    I am amazed at how often I run across these misplaced modifiers in published books. If it happens too often, I have to stop reading.

  11. Just read your comment, Christopher. You definitely do not have a problem. LOL

  12. Great article, Heidi! Thanks for sharing! I've got a similar one over at Crime Fiction Collective right now, on writing stimulus before response, cause before effect, action before reaction.

    I'll be sending my writer clients here to read this!

  13. I have enough trouble looking for Junior's shoes; woe to those whose modifiers are misplaced!

  14. This was fun to read. Thanks, Heidi!

  15. This post was fun. Oh. Everyone else has already used that adjective and the only synonyms I can think of are in other languages. Oh well.

    I had a teacher once advise me to use sentences with 'ing' phrases more. They're sticky sentences that I have to have wrestling matches with. Now, I'm smarter. I avoid them.

    Misplaced modifiers are so much fun to laugh at and play with sometimes. They would be more fun if I didn't make such mistakes so often. It's as bad as my misplaced commas. I know what's right, but it comes out different when I type or write.

    Thank God for computers where you can go back and clean up before anyone else notices the mess you make.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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