Misplaced Modifiers: The Joy of Miscommunication

I have to confess that I love misplaced modifiers. Though they take some work to fix, they often provide a good laugh in the middle of a serious project. On the other hand, I wouldn’t miss them if they weren’t there (newspaper headlines provide enough fodder—more on this later).

Misplaced (or dangling) modifiers are additions to the sentence that are not logically attached to the noun, adjective, adverb, or verb that they actually modify. They are placed in such a way that they don’t do what the writer meant for them to do. Instead of modifying noun A as intended, for example, they modify noun B because they are closer to it.

For the most part, this happens because we as the writer know what we want our adverbs and phrases to modify, but the reader may not.

English allows a good deal of flexibility with moving various parts of speech around (the syntax of the sentence). But most things modify what they’re closest to, meaning that you should strive for clarity by keeping adverbs, adjective, and phrases close to whatever they alter.

Let’s look at an incorrect example:

Flying through the air, the mountains looked beautiful.

As is, this sentence means that the mountains are doing the flying. Even though we know mountains cannot take wing (and the reader would, too), the plain reading of the sentence is logically suspect. Explaining this one can be tricky because the noun that “flying through the air” modifies is the narrator (an implied I).

One way to fix it is this:

When I was flying to Los Angeles, I noticed that the mountains looked beautiful.

Another incorrect example would be the following:

For sale: a copper sauce pan for a chef with a round bottom

Unless this seller wants to limit who can buy the sauce pan, we must assume that the sauce pan has the round bottom. (And this is based on a real ad, by the way.) The simple solution is to move “round bottom” after “sauce pan.”

For sale: chef’s copper sauce pan with a round bottom

Newspaper headlines are great for dangling modifiers because space is at a premium. Here are some fun ones I found (granted that many of these stem from implied words that the reader is supposed to add and some are borderline—but they’re too good to pass up):

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

Miner Refuses to Work after Death

Local High School Dropouts Cut In Half

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

There’s much more we could discuss about specific examples (and artistic license), but for now just remember this: Keeping a modifier close to the modifiee (not a real word, but I’m lobbying for it to be one) is the best way to go. Just because you understand what you mean doesn’t mean that your reader will.

Please leave any humorous examples you’ve seen.


3 thoughts on “Misplaced Modifiers: The Joy of Miscommunication

  1. Here are some more funny headlines: 🙂

    1. For Sale: antique desk suitable for a lady with thick legs and large drawers.
    Correction: For sale: antique desk with thick legs and large drawers, suitable for a lady.

    2. Wanted: man to take care of cow who doesn’t drink or smoke.
    Correction: wanted: man who doesn’t drink or smoke to take care of cow.

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