Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
“Huh?” you may ask yourself. “I kinda remember hearing those words in high school English class, but I have no idea what they mean,” you may answer.
- The robber was described as a six-foot-tall man with a mustache weighing 150 pounds.
Funny, right? What weighed 150 pounds—the robber or the mustache? This sentence reads as though the mustache weighed 150 pounds. This is how it should be re-written:
- The robber was described as a 150-pound, six-foot-tall man with a mustache.
The above is one of my favorite examples of a “misplaced phrase” from Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition. She wrote several writing handbooks that I will quote in this blog.
We learned these concepts for a high school English exam and then forgot soon after. So here’s a brief refresher. I think these are important because these errors can lead, as you see above, to grave misunderstandings. As an editor, I see them often, even in professional writing.
A modifying word is—you guessed it—a word that modifies another word. This is not rocket science. The most common modifying words are considered limiting modifiers, which should appear in front of a word (often a verb) only if they limit the meaning of that word. These are some common ones:
According to Diana Hacker, “Modifiers should point, without a doubt, to the words they modify. As a rule, related words should be kept together.”
Here’s an example using the word only incorrectly.
- Only feed my dog the food in this container.
So did the writer intend that the word only modify the word feed? No. He meant to modify the phrase food in this container. Therefore, the modifier only should be placed directly in front of food in this container as in this corrected version
- Feed my dog only the food in this container.
Here’s an example using the word even incorrectly.
- I couldn’t even jump over the two-foot hurdle.
Does this writer intend to modify jump or modify two-foot hurdle? She intended to modify two-foot hurdle, so the modifier even is not in the right place. It should read like this:
- I couldn’t jump over even the two-foot hurdle.
Dangling modifiers fail to refer in a logical fashion to any word in a sentence, and they are usually introductory groups of words. Here, again, is one of my favorites from Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition:
- Upon entering the doctor’s office, a skeleton caught my attention.
Oops. Who entered the doctor’s office—a skeleton? Probably not. Here’s the repaired version:
- Upon entering the doctor’s office, I noticed a skeleton.
In the first instance, Upon entering the doctor’s office is placed directly in front of a skeleton, which is nonsensical. In the second instance, Upon entering the doctor’s office directly precedes I and now makes sense because it was I who entered the doctor’s office, not the skeleton.
As you proof read any of your own writing, be on the lookout for these dangling and misplaced words—unless your intent is to make your audience laugh.
Susan is a retired English professor of 25 years who enjoys all that her home state of Colorado offers. She is an avid road bicyclist, hiker, and viola player with six published books who has really, really—yes really—enjoyed teaching grammar and mechanics to her students.