A popular post from October 2008
by Annette Lyon
Time for another post with self-editing fun. No, really. This time it is fun. Today's topic is one that's easy to giggle over, at least when you find the mistake in someone else's work (or before yours gets in front of an editor).
Let's laugh with some misplaced modifiers and dangling participles!
So what is a misplaced modifier? It's a noun (or pronoun) or phrase—basically any descriptor—that's in the wrong place for what it's supposed to be describing. Often that means it's too far away from it, or at least that something else is in the way.
Don't let the terminology scare you. Dangling participles are just a specific type of misplaced modifier. I won't go into the differences between the two. Instead, I'll lump them together.
Try this sentence on for size:
Joe went on the ride with my sister called The Raging Flame of Death.
Hmm. That's not a sister I'd like to hang out with. Oh, wait! The ride has that name. In that case:
He went on the The Raging Flame of Death ride [or the ride called The Raging Flame of Death] with my sister.
Other funny examples:
Two computers were reported stolen by the high school principal.
(That's one unethical principal . . .)
The anchor reported a coming lightning storm on the television.
(Get AWAY from that television!)
Please look through the contents of the package with your wife.
(Must be one huge package if she fits in it.)
James hadn’t meant to let it slip that he wasn’t married, at least to his boss.
(Wait. His boss is Mrs. James?)
Quiet and patient, her dress was simple, yet stylish.
(Let's hope her dress wasn't loud and impatient.)
At the age of five, her mother remarried.
(Um . . . doubt that's legal in any state. And she certainly wasn't a mother then.)
These little nasties are painfully easy to drop into your work without you even knowing it. Basically they happen when you've used an action and then the subject that belongs to the action is put into the wrong place.
The result is most definitely a meaning you didn't intend.
One of the most common forms is relatively easy to spot: look for sentences that open with an "ing" phrase. (These are the most common dangling participles, if you care about that sort of thing.)
Turning the corner on a bike, a huge dog startled him.
(Apparently that's a dog with serious coordination skills.)
Driving through town, the grocery store appeared on the right.
(Freaky store. And just how big is that car?!)
And here's one of my favorite dangling participles (which I found in a New York Times bestseller that shall remain nameless, even though it was just too funny):
Being my father, I thought he'd be more upset.
(Now THAT is one amazing genetic trick . . .)
You get the idea.
Misplaced modifiers and dangling participles can sound scary and intimidating, but in reality, they're easy to fix. Just make sure the action in your sentence is really attached to the person or thing doing it.
This is one of the many things you don't need to worry too much about in the drafting stage. It IS, however, one of those things you should try to catch in the revision stage. One great way is to read your draft aloud. The stresses and pauses will make you recognize when something doesn't quite sound right. Pick some trusted readers to ferret out these kinds of bloopers as well.
Your future lack of embarrassment is most definitely worth the effort.