Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Writing it Right: Putting Those Misplaced Modifiers in their Place

Often I stumble upon a great article that I feel every writer should read. Author Carolynn Carey graciously consented to share one valuable piece with us. Isn't networking great -- as well as her cover? ~ Donnell

Misplaced modifiers and dangling participles: We’ve all heard of them and most of us have figured out what they are, but we continue to write them anyway because— Well, heck, we know what our sentences mean. Shouldn’t everyone else figure it out too?

Well, no. Even if readers know what you mean, chances are that a misplaced modifier will pull them out of your story, which is the last thing you want.

So how do we recognize a misplaced modifier? After you are thoroughly familiar with the concept, your ear will alert you to misplaced modifiers.

But if you haven’t reached that stage yet, try this simple trick. When you write an introductory phrase such as “After marinating in the fridge overnight,…” pay particular attention to the next noun or pronoun. If you write, “After marinating in the fridge overnight, I put the steaks on the grill,” then you must be both cold and tenderized. Sure, we all know that it was the steaks that marinated in the fridge overnight, but that isn’t what you said.

You could just as easily write, “After I marinated the steaks in the fridge overnight, I put them on the grill.” Or “After the steaks marinated in the fridge overnight, I put them on the grill.” Or, “I marinated the steaks in the fridge overnight and then put them on the grill.”

This type of mistake is fairly common. Recently I read an academic paper in which the author wrote, “Although far from ideal, we…” In the remainder of the sentence, the author talked about the conditions in which she and other researchers had been working. As a reader, I knew she meant the conditions were far from ideal, but what she had actually said was that the researchers were far from ideal—a bit of unintended self-deprecation I assume.

And dangling participles are especially troublesome, especially if taken out of context. Take, for example, the following sentence from the local television news: “Having cut his foot on the broken glass, the dog tracked the thief.” Only if you heard the rest of the story could you know for sure whether the dog or the thief ended up with a cut foot. (It was the thief.)

So when you proof your manuscript, keep an eye out for misplaced modifiers and if you find one, rewrite your sentence.

© Carolynn Carey

Carolynn Carey is a retired academic editor who is fascinated by the ever-changing English language, as evidenced in her blog ( Her interest in language includes fiction writing, specifically romance, and she first sold two traditional romances to Avalon Books. Next, Cerridwen Press published her traditional Regency, Compromising Situations, which won a National Reader's Choice Award. This was followed by her women's fiction, Lilly for a Day, set in a daylily farm in Tennessee, and by a Regency novella that was part of an anthology in December 2008. Carolynn is currently working on a single title contemporary and another Regency.


Judi Romaine said...

Thank you for the article, Donnell. I now have an ear, lightlyl trained, for the nasty dangler. I appreciate it. I will always visit a blot if it has something to teach about writing -

Lynn romaine -

Nancy said...

Carolynn, I'm chuckling over the blog. Been there, made those boners and wosre, but they are good for a giggle!

Donnell, thanks for bringing us Carolynn!

Nancy Haddock

Mary Marvella said...

I love this woman!

My CPs don't love it when I point out the misplaced modifiers and the dangling anythings. I am the PITA teacher.

YES, these things DO pull me from the story way more than a point of view shift, more than one every sentence!

So glad to know I am not along!

I'm not fond of misused semicolons, either.

Donnell said...

Okay, Mary, now you've gone and done it. I'll expect an article on the dreaded semicolon :) I love hearing these types of arguments. I think they make us better writers.

Edie said...

I'm pretty good about modifiers. One of my CPs misplaces them often, though. My other CP is an English major, so no misplacements there.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

The examples make it easy to understand! Yes, I'm sure we all misplace our modifiers now and then. Reading one's work outloud helps to catch these as well.

L. Diane Wolfe

Audra Harders said...

Great writing tip, Carolynn! I'm the queen of misplaced modifiers! Yes, I have *the ear* to hear my sentence structure is wrong, giving me the opportunity to correct it, but it's not a habit formed, yet.

Thanks for the reminder!!

Annette said...

Thanks for sharing this article, Donnell. Misplaced modifiers can be good for a laugh, but that usually isn't what the author intended.

By the way, my word verification is "maties." Arrrr.

Carolynn Carey said...

Hi all, and thanks for the kind comments. I'm so glad to hear that my article was helpful. I'm sorry to be so late leaving a comment but I spend last night at the hospital with dh and I didn't get home and back to the computer until late this afternoon. He's fine but we're both tired. Those chairs that are supposed to fold out and turn into a bed—well, I won't go there.

And Donnell, thanks so much for running my article and my cover. You did a great job with them.

Mary Marvella said...

Donnell, you don't want to bore your readers like that.

Donnell said...

Carolynn, thanks so much for sharing your article. And please get some rest and know my thoughts and prayers are with you and your husband. We hope you'll come back some time ;) All best, Donnell

Donnell said...

Mary, I don't think any article you could ever write would be boring, and I love sharing craft with readers!


Great post and one that will stick in my mind as I compose.

Donnell said...

Archavist, thanks for stopping by. Your blog is intriguing. Great old films from many of my favorites.