Post 79

Author: Nola Published: about 2 years ago
Tags: humour, clarity, flow, attributions, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers Category: Writing tips

Literary Speed Bumps Part 4: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

It might be fine for Tarzan to dangle from the end of a vine while rescuing Jane (or Wonder Woman to dangle from her Golden Lasso while saving lesser mortals). However, no one likes to see a modifier dangling in literary space. It’s another speed bump that stops readers in their tracks.

What is a Modifier?

It’s a word, or group of words, that modifies or helps describe another word or phrase. An adjective modifies the noun that follows it (e.g. Dancing Queen). A phrase like ‘running from the dragon’ could describe the person who’s running. When a modifier is placed next to the word or phrase it describes, the author’s meaning is usually clear. However, problems can arise if those modifiers are left dangling or otherwise misplaced.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a word, phrase or clause that can be misinterpreted because the subject is missing altogether or appears in another sentence. Consider the following examples.

Veronica scanned the alley for an escape route. Opening the back door of a café, her purse fell to the ground.

Presumably, Veronica dropped her purse as she opened the back door. However, because Veronica is not mentioned in the second sentence, it sounds like the purse was opening the door.

After clicking a few buttons on the control panel, the warp drive was engaged.

We can assume that someone (or something) clicked the buttons. However, because no one is mentioned, it sounds as if the warp drive did the clicking.

After listening to Jessica Mauboy, the new song is bound to be a hit.

It sounds like the song was the one listening.

Problems such as these can be overcome by including the appropriate noun or pronoun, and rephrasing for clarity. For example:

Veronica scanned the alley for an escape route. As she opened the back door of a café, her purse fell to the ground.

The captain clicked a few buttons on the control panel to engage the warp drive.

After listening to Jessica Mauboy’s new song, I knew it would be a hit.

Misplaced Modifiers

A misplaced modifier is one that appears too far away from its intended target word or phrase, thus causing confusion or ambiguity. Consider the following:

The penguin was filmed by David Attenborough, diving for fish in Antarctica.

It sounds like David Attenborough was the one diving for fish.

The designer gown looked good on the budding actress, purple and resplendent in sequins.

Presumably the gown is purple and resplendent in sequins, but it sounds as if the actress is purple and covered in sequins.

Again, some rewording could solve the ambiguities.

David Attenborough filmed the penguin as it dived for fish in Antarctica.

The designer gown, purple and resplendent in sequins, looked good on the budding actress.

The budding actress looked good in the designer gown, which was purple and resplendent in sequins.

The budding actress wore a beautiful designer gown that was purple and covered in sequins.

Grammar is Funny

In this post, I’ve assumed you want to make your sentences clear. However, dangling and misplaced modifiers can be used for comic effect. Wheeler cites a classic example from Groucho Marx:

The other day, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.

Can you think of any funny examples of dangling or misplaced modifiers? Or maybe you’ve come across one in a newspaper or advertisement. I’d love to read your examples. In the meantime, you might like to check out some funny ones here.

For Further Reading:

What is a Modifier? Definition, Examples of Modifiers from the ‘Writing Explained’ website.

The Dangling Modifier by Robin L. Simmons

Don’t Let Your Modifiers Dangle in Polite Society by L. Kip Wheeler

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