Sunday, April 28, 2013

Those awkward, dangly sentence bits--misplaced modifiers.

Spring fever is in full swing, and I haven't been feeling terribly inspired to blog lately. I've been rewriting and revising my novel (I really hope for the last time) and wrapping up another semester of biology labs. But one thing I've been thinking about as I comb my manuscript for awkward turns of phrase and repetitive sentence structures are dangling (or misplaced) modifiers.

Modifiers are words, phrases or clauses that add description to a noun or pronoun without changing the core meaning of a sentence. In logically constructed sentences, the modifier is most often adjacent to (either before or immediately following) the noun it modifies.

The dog, a Dalmatian, growled at me.

Bored with tonight's episode, Susan changed the channel.

Hungry, Fred made a sandwich.

Modifiers have the potential to create confusion, as this example from my own manuscript illustrates:

Danior sat at the table, the man from Jarrod's nightmares.

Okay, I know what I meant when I wrote it. But as the sentence is constructed, it means that the table is the man from Jarrod's nightmares. This really doesn't make sense, as my world's magic system does not incorporate transmutations between animate beings and inanimate objects.

Fortunately, it's not hard to reword this sentence to read:

Danior, the man from Jarrod's nightmares, sat at the table.

By moving the descriptive clause (the man from Jarrod's nightmare) closer to the subject (Danior), we eliminate the issue.

Sometimes dangling modifiers can produce pretty hilarious results.

Here's another:

Freshly painted, Tom left the walls to dry.

Hmmm, is Tom freshly painted?

Flying over the plains in a helicopter, The herd of bison was vast.

That's one talented herd of Bison...

Or here's one that really could engender some misunderstanding:

I wrote a report on sexual harassment in my office.

The following sentence (though still awkward in my opinion) would be far less likely to get me in trouble:

In my office, I wrote a report on sexual harassment.

The frustrating thing about dangling and misplaced modifiers is that writers tend to be pretty close to their own work. We all know what we mean, and so illogical sentence constructs can sneak past our proofing. When the results are completely illogical or amusing, the reader will likely pick up on the sentence's true meaning (though he or she will likely be jolted from your story, and have a good chuckle at your expense). But there are times when the meaning of the sentence is changed into something logical but unintended.

The woman was walking the dog wearing a miniskirt.

This sentence suggests that the dog was wearing the miniskirt. Now, this may seem absurd to some, but in fact, a quick trip to Petsmart will show that some people do like to dress their dogs.  If it is actually the woman who is wearing the miniskirt, a better construct might be:

The woman wearing a miniskirt walked the dog, or The woman, wearing a miniskirt, walked the dog.

Also notice how the first example (sans commas) makes the woman's miniskirt an integral part of her description. She is the woman wearing the miniskirt. That's who she is. The second one makes the miniskirt seem like sort of an "extra" thing about her. She is a woman who just so happens to be wearing a miniskirt in this instance. It's something she's doing in addition to walking the dog.

Although this is not the main point of my little piece here, it does illustrate the role of even those "optional" commas in clarifying the meaning of a sentence.

Another way of writing the sentence: The woman walked the dog while wearing a miniskirt. This really shifts the emphasis to the act of wearing a miniskirt, to the point where it becomes the focus of the sentence (as if, perhaps, walking a dog while wearing a miniskirt is unusual in this particular setting or situation).

Misplaced modifiers are an example of why it is important to put your story or chapter down for a while and come back to it to read with "fresh eyes."

Unless you enjoy giving your beta readers an unintended chuckle.


  1. We can pick them out and giggle over them in other people's writing, but they can slip by unnoticed in our own. As you say, when you know what you mean, you see the picture and don't notice the word order, or the punctuation. Thank goodness for beta readers!

  2. And those unintended chuckles can brighten a reader's day :)