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.