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Some of you may recall from your school days being taught about dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, and faulty parallels. In our new book Punctuation For Fiction Writers, Scott and I covered the topics of dangling and misplaced modifiers to a limited degree, but I’m going to do so in more detail here.
Exactly what are dangling and misplaced modifiers? A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies or describes something, often a noun or pronoun.
DANGLING MODIFIER: A modifier is considered dangling when the thing it modifies is missing from the sentence. A couple of examples will make this clear.
—Without knowing which way John went, it was impossible to follow him.
—After reading the great new book, the movie based on it is sure to be exciting.
In the first sentence, the reference to whoever found it impossible to follow John is missing. In the second example, the reference to the reader of the book is missing.
—Without knowing which way John went, Mark found it impossible to follow him.
—Because we didn’t know which way John went, it was impossible for us to follow him.
—After I read the great new book, I was sure the movie based on it would be exciting.
—After reading the great new book, I expected the movie based on it to be exciting.
MISPLACED MODIFIER: A modifier is considered to be misplaced if it’s not next to the thing it’s referring to.
—I saw the trees peeking through the window. (trees peeking? The modifier “peeking through the window” directly follows “trees,” which is not what it’s supposed to be modifying or describing.)
—She left the room fuming. (What did she do to the poor room that it was fuming after she left it?)
—Peeking through the window, I saw the trees.
—Fuming, she left the room.
Here are a few examples of humorous misplaced modifiers. These and more can be found in the following reference:
It’s good exercise to look these over, recognize the mistakes, and figure out a way to fix them.
—Leaping to the saddle, his horse bolted. (Nice trick for a stunt horse to do)
—Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed. (Maybe Bambi was too young to be driving)
—Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing. (Maybe Marvin is the oozing sort.)
—Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement. (Since when do bananas go shopping. Or one might ask, if people slip on banana peels, what do bananas slip on?)
—She handed out brownies to the children stored in Tupperware. (Does Tupperware even make containers large enough to store kids in?)
—I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner. (Well, I guess if this were a fantasy story, then maybe the oysters could be coming down for dinner.)
—With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena. (This would also work in a fantasy novel where the father is a centaur.)
—I saw the dead dog driving down the interstate. (Another great fantasy idea: zombie dogs who can drive)
The girl was consoled by the nurse who had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills. (That must be one mighty depressed nurse.)
—Having an automatic stick shift, Jerry bought the car. (In the original version of this sentence, the person’s name was Nancy, but it’s even funnier this way when a man is being referred to.)
Groucho Marx said it best: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” (I’m sure you thought that was funny, but now you can understand why it is funny and how one would fix it.)
These over-the-top examples are amusing, but the sad thing is that I have seen a number of less egregious ones in stories I’ve read and edited. No one is immune to these errors, not even careful writers. It’s easy to slip up because many times were more engrossed in our writing than we are in the grammar. I’ve caught myself on occasion. Here’s one from my first novel that even the editor missed. I missed it again when reissuing the novel:
—Bryce met him at Clinton County Airport wearing a khaki shirt and shorts.
This could be corrected by adding a comma after “airport” to show that the participle phrase refers to “Bryce” not to the “airport.” While this is technically a misplaced modifier, the fact that several people missed it demonstrates that it’s a minor one and unlikely to be misread or seen as amusing. Besides adding the comma, another fix is to place the participle phrase first.
—Wearing a khaki shirt and shorts, Bryce met him at Clinton County Airport.
Now here’s another example (also from my novel) that appears at first to be another misplaced modifier.
—During lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut, the ad played games with my mind.
This is not a misplaced modifier because the opening phrase is an adverb phrase (telling when), not a participle phrase acting as an adjective describing something.
However, if we change “during” to “eating,” then it becomes a dangling modifier issue.
—Eating lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut, the ad played games with my mind.
Here are two more articles to check out on the subject:
We’ve seen that some misplaced modifiers are less serious than others and likely most readers won’t catch them. Still, you should avoid them by paying close attention to your writing. Good writing depends on being clear with the choice of words and with the placement of them in sentences.
In a future post, I’ll deal with faulty sentence parallels, something harder to spot and which I see a lot of. Until then, make sure your modifiers are put in their right places and modify what they’re supposed to.
Next week, Scott will be back with the second part of his Trials and Errors series.