Before we go any further, let me say that this is not a post discussing whether or not there should be an apostrophe in mens (in the title of this post) or whether said apostrophe should be before or after the s. No one can seem to decide whether that usage is a singular or plural possessive, or whether it is possessive at all, but there certainly has been a lot of discussion about it. It seems that most people have decided to just leave the apostrophe out. Does that room belong to one man or many men? We’ll let that question hang . . .
On to the topic at hand. If you heard about the meeting in the mens room, we could be confused, especially if you tell someone that or send a memo with that wording. Is the meeting really in the mens room? (Well, that is what the sentence says.) Or did you hear about some meeting while you were in the mens room? (More likely.)
Usually we understand what is being said or read even when the words are a little jumbled, but not always, so it is best to avoid what are generally known as “misplaced modifiers.”
What are modifiers? Anything — a word, a phrase, or a clause that describes something in the sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are words that are modifiers. Phrases are also sometimes modifiers; they serve as adjectives or adverbs in a sentence, telling what kind, to what extent, how, or how many.
Most of the time, when we talk about things being “misplaced” in a sentence, we are talking about participial phrases, hence the term dangling participle. We aren’t talking about participles here, though. This post is about misplaced prepositional phrases. But back to participles for a moment . . .
Participles are called “dangling” when they don’t modify anything at all in the sentence. They are called “misplaced” when they modify something in the sentence, but are placed so that they appear to modify something else. Here are a couple of examples:
Freshly cleaned and pressed, I picked up my shirts from the dry cleaner. Freshly cleaned and pressed is misplaced; it refers to the shirts, but it is placed so that it modifies I. (I was freshly cleaned and pressed?)
While still in diapers, my mother remarried. While still in diapers is dangling. It looks as if it modifies mother. It obviously isn’t intended to. It modifies something (likely I) that isn’t in the sentence at all.
Now, for this post, back to prepositions. Let’s review. Prepositions always come in little phrases. The phrase always begins with the preposition, is followed often by an article (a, an, the), and ends with a noun or pronoun, which is the object of the preposition. Prepositions tell what kind, when, or where. Here are some prepositional phrases:
in the house
beyond the horizon
out the door
under the table
across the street
with blue stripes (no article in this one, but the object has an adjective before it)
Now if you put this prepositional phrase someplace in the sentence where it is not clear what it modifies or where it seems to modify the wrong word, it is misplaced. Take the example at the beginning of this post:
I heard about the meeting in the men’s room. This sentence would probably be understood, especially if it were said, as opposed to written. However, there are ways to write it more clearly:
While I was in the mens room, I heard about the meeting.
In the mens room, I heard about the meeting (leaving the prepositional phrase intact).
Here are some other sentences with misplaced prepositional phrases:
1. My boss said on Tuesday I was being evaluated. Did he say it on Tuesday, or are you being evaluated on Tuesday? Hard to know. Rewrite the sentence to make it clearer:
My boss said that I was being evaluated on Tuesday.
On Tuesday my boss told me I was going to be evaluated.
2. I read a book about the killer bees in the library. Were the killer bees in the library? Rewrite the sentence to make it clearer.
In the library I read a book about killer bees.
3. I heard about the hurricane at Starbucks. Unless hurricane is a new coffee drink, you might want to rewrite this one too!
I heard about the hurricane while I was at Starbucks.
At Starbucks I heard about the hurricane.
Drinking my latte at Starbucks, I heard about the hurricane.
4. Did you find the old baby clothes worn by your little sister in the trunk? Who’s in the trunk? Rewrite to clear this up:
In that trunk did you find the old baby clothes worn by your little sister? (Careful you don’t rewrite it as Did you find the old baby clothes in the trunk worn by your little sister?)
It is very easy to put modifiers someplace in the sentence where they will be either ambiguous or simply misleading. Be careful — and proofread!
-The Grammar Diva-
p.s. Thank you for making July my best book sales month ever!