Grammar can be pretty funny. Whoever thought grammar was serious business hasn’t looked at some of the cartoons and memes on Facebook! And they obviously haven’t attended one of my workshops!
One of the more humorous gaffes that occurs in grammar (mostly in written language) is the misplaced (and sometimes dangling) modifier. These are often hard to find and easy to miss — whether you are the writer or the reader — but when you do find them . . .
Most misplaced modifiers are prepositional or participial phrases that are in the “wrong” place in the sentence, meaning that they are not near the word they modify, but near another word that they appear to be modifying. Let’s review . . .
- Modifier – A word or phrase that describes something in the sentence
- Prepositional phrase – A short group of words beginning with a preposition: in the house, under the table, across the street, up the stairs, etc.
- Participial phrase – A participle is a verb that is now being used as an adjective. A present participle ends in ing. A past participle is formed like the present perfect (with has or have) form of the verb: hopping bunny (present participle), hopping along, the bunny . . . (present participle in a short phrase), frozen pond (past participle), frozen solid, the pond . . . (short participial phrase)
- Dangling versus misplaced – When a modifier is misplaced, it is sitting near (and apparently describing) the wrong word in the sentence. When a modifier is dangling, the word it is modifying isn’t even in the sentence!
In the English language, modifiers are generally sitting next to the words they modify. If they are in the incorrect place, humor can ensue . . .
Here are some misplaced prepositional phrases:
- I heard about the meeting in the men’s room. (the meeting is in the men’s room?)
- Did you read about the insects in the book? (the insects are in the book?)
- The painting caught my eye on the wall. (my eye is on the wall?)
- I found a desk for my friend with large drawers. (my friend has large drawers?)
- I looked for the dresses that belonged to my grandmother in the attic. (grandma’s in the attic?)
Change the location of the phrase for clearer sentences! For example
- In the men’s room, I heard about the meeting.
- The painting on the wall caught my eye.
- In the attic, I looked for the dresses that belonged to my grandmother. Note that if you say “I looked for the dresses in the attic that belonged to my grandmother,” is still doesn’t make sense!
Here are some misplaced participles:
- The dog crawled under the fence looking for food. (the fence was looking for food?)
- I watched that movie laughing uncontrollably. (the movie was laughing?)
- Sitting on a bed of rice, I thought the chicken looked delicious. (I was sitting on a bed of rice?)
- Chasing a car down the street, I couldn’t catch my dog. (I was chasing a car down the street?)
Fix them like this: (there are other ways as well)
- Looking for food, the dog crawled under the fence.
- Laughing uncontrollably, I watched that movie.
- Sitting on a bed of rice, the chicken looked delicious, I thought.
- I couldn’t catch my dog, as he chased a car down the street.
Here are some dangling modifiers:
- While still in diapers, my mother remarried. (Who was in diapers? Mother?)
- Walking down the street, the flowers blew in the breeze. (The flowers were walking down the street?)
- Freshly painted, I admired my work. (I was freshly painted?)
- After sitting in the sun all day, a cool shower felt good. (A cool shower was sitting in the sun?)
Here, we need to put in the word that the phrase is describing:
- While I was still in diapers, my mother remarried.
- As I was walking down the street, the flowers blew in the breeze.
- I admired my work on the freshly painted wall.
- After I sat in the sun all day, a cool shower felt good.
The only way to avoid these grammar gremlins is to proofread your work – carefully!
Upcoming Grammar Diva Events:
Tuesday, April 19 – Corporate grammar workshop, Santa Clara (private)
Saturday August 6 – The Best Little Grammar Workshop Ever at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma
Sunday, September 11 – Roundtable speaker (on editing), Redwood Writers, Santa Rosa
Watch for the Second Edition of The Best Little Grammar Book Ever! coming soon