Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Case of the Misplaced Modifier

Part of creating a publishable story is getting the grammar correct. 

(We'll pause a moment to let my critique partners stop laughing. One, two, three...okay.)

Donn Taylor collects professional writers’ lapses into misplaced modifiers. While his collection is hilarious, it's enough to make any writer run to the computer to desperately search through their own work. To save myself (and you) the embarrassment of being part of his collection, I asked him the following questions: 

"What is a misplaced modifier and how do writers guard against them? Can you give some examples of your favorites?"

Donn: In normal English usage, a modifying phrase refers to the noun or pronoun (or sometimes verb) closest to it. A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying phrase is placed away from the noun or pronoun the writer intends it to modify. The results are always confusing, but often ridiculous:                     

Looking in through the window, the new sofa could be seen.

This construction places the sofa simultaneously outside the window looking in and inside the building being seen. Physicists tell us this is probably possible with subatomic particles, but they have not yet extended that theory to sofas.

This kind of misplaced modifier usually occurs when the writer begins the sentence thinking active voice and, after the comma, changes to passive voice. The most common cures are to give the modifier something logical to modify or to change the modifying phrase to a dependent clause:

Looking in through the window, I saw the new sofa.

or, When I looked in through the window, I saw the new sofa.

Writers should find their misplaced modifiers during proofing or revision. The cure is always to rewrite the sentence so that the modifier is placed as close as possible to the word (noun, pronoun, verb) it modifies. With that lesson learned, let’s enjoy some prime examples that somehow crept through the editing process in novels from first-line CBA publishers. (I leave to my readers the process of moving the modifier to a logical place or rewriting the sentence to establish logic. I will content myself with a few sardonic comments.)

“[A] man in grey slacks and a blue blazer holding a walkie-talkie waved at them.”

Comment: Those sports jackets get more versatile every day!

Taking his first step, the slippery surface caused him to fall flat on his back.”

Comment: Surfaces that walk? Must be Sci-fi.

Standing up slowly, a wave of vertigo swept through him.”

Comment: Would things have been worse if the wave had stood up quickly?

Having come straight from the airport in the clothes they’d worn to travel, his query made sense.”

Comment: Remarkable! Casually dressed queries rarely make sense.

 “Adorned in mostly homemade ornaments, its pine scent mingled with the kitchen aromas.”

Comment: Adorned or unadorned, the scent still smelled. But at least it was sociable.

Hidden away in the cabin, my mind continued to wander.”

Comment: Confined to the cabin, it couldn’t wander far.

But some of the most ridiculous examples come from local newspapers:

The governor shot the coyote that he said was threatening his daughter’s puppy with a Ruger .380-caliber pistol.

Comment: The coyote had his teeth on the trigger.

                        The [injured] dog was discovered by an oilfield worker wrapped in a towel inside a white trash bag.

Comment: Oilfield workers have strange tastes in clothing.

The principle to remember: Keep the modifiers close to the words they modify. In revising and proofing, look for misplaced modifiers and move them to their proper places.
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature (especially Renaissance) at two liberal arts colleges. His novels The Lazarus File and Rhapsody in Red have received excellent reviews, and he has also authored Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. His new book is another suspense novel, Deadly Additive. He is a frequent speaker at writers' conferences such as Glorieta and Blue Ridge. He and his wife live near Houston, Texas, where he continues to write fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics.

Links to his books are on his Web site: Other links: and           

Is checking for those misplaced modifiers a part of your editing process? What are some of the funniest grammar goofs you have found in print? How would you rewrite the above examples?