Dang Those Dangling Modifiers

You don’t have to be an author to know how important parts of speech and grammar rules can be. I wasn’t doing anything writing-related when I saw the importance of sentence structure one day.

Not having seen rabbits eating up my garden for several months, I was sure the owls had taken care of my problem. I realized that I was not going to be that lucky when my husband came home and announced, “I saw a rabbit driving down the road.”

The smart aleck in me couldn’t resist saying, “Oh, what was he driving?”

You see how easily we leave parts of our sentence dangling, making the meaning unclear. Dangling modifiers are more common than you might think. They make our writing look bad, but they certainly provide some entertainment for the copy-editor.

Very often, phrases that modify a noun or pronoun are placed carelessly into a sentence. When they contain verb forms and are left dangling, without a definite indication of what they are modifying, the results can be disastrous to our writing.

Here are some examples of dangling modifiers.

  1. Gerund phrase:

After finding out about the actors, the movie did not seem as appealing to us.

(It sounds as if the movie found out about the actors.)

  1. Elliptical phrase (where some words are omitted and meanings presumed to be understood):

Weapons ready, the duel was fought.

(Did the duel have the weapons ready?)

  1. Participial phrase:

John heard an owl walking through the woods.

(Was the owl walking through the woods?)

  1. Infinitive phrase:

To drive a car a licence must be held.

(Does this mean I have to hold it in my hand while driving? Or does it mean that if I don’t have a licence I won’t know how to drive a car?)

  1. Prepositional phrase:

With only a dollar in his pocket, it seemed useless to try to go far.

(Who is “it”? Does “it” have a dollar in “his” [whose?] pocket?)

  1. Appositive

A magnificent mansion, the door opened to show a grand ballroom inside.

(Is the door the same as a mansion?)

Misplaced Modifiers

Other problems with modifiers happen when they are misplaced, as often happens with qualifiers such as “only” or “almost.”

Some examples follow. Note the difference in meaning when the word is placed in various locations.

  1. Her cousin only drives their car. (He doesn’t wash it or fuel it up.)
  2. Her only cousin drives their car. (She has no other cousins.)
  3. Her cousin drives only their car. (He doesn’t drive anyone else’s, or he doesn’t drive their truck or van.)
  4. Her cousin drives their only car. (They have no other car except that one.)
  5. We almost saw ten whales. (We saw none because we got to the spot too late.)
  6. We saw almost ten whales. (We saw eight or nine of them.)

Placement of modifiers matters a great deal.

Squinting Modifiers

One more type of modifier causes ambiguity in a sentence. Often it is placed between two possible elements, and we have no way of knowing which it is meant to describe. We call it a “squint” modifier, perhaps because it seems to squint and we can’t tell which way it is looking or which element it is meant to modify.

Some examples:

My mother told me sometimes to watch where I’m going. (Did she tell me sometimes, or should I only watch where I’m going sometimes?)

She said every day to wash my face. (Did she say it every day or should I wash my face every day?)

The squint can also appear at the end of the sentence.

My dogs chased each other in the yard when I called them for a good reason. (Did the dogs chase each other for a good reason, or did I call them for a good reason?)

The fisherman was smiling when he caught the fish without even knowing it. (Did the fisherman not know that he was smiling or that he caught the fish. OR, was it the fish who didn’t know it was caught?)

While dangling, misplaced, and squinting modifiers can be a source of amusement, they do not provide the kind of entertainment we strive for in our writing. They can be very sneaky and are sometimes hard to detect. Be watchful and try to avoid them.

And while you’re being watchful, keep an eye out for that rabbit driving down the road. Most likely he was driving a brown VW Rabbit.

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4 thoughts on “Dang Those Dangling Modifiers

  1. Thanks for posting this. These are the most common problems I look for in my own writing and in copy-editing for friends and clients. A friend who was a French language scholar once told me that the most common mistake made by American writers is misplaced adverbs, so I always look for those (and find them).

    Like

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