There’s an old Groucho Marx joke that goes:
“I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”
If you can get the joke, you can understand misplaced modifiers. The modifier here is “in my pajamas,” and well, the sensible thing to do would be to put that modifier next to “I” as in “In my pajamas, I shot an elephant.” It’s clear that Groucho’s wearing the pajamas. It’s clear, but not funny at all.
But then, when you put the elephant in between the modifier and the intended subject, that’s when things get tricky. Many of us slip up and use misplaced modifiers. They’re sometimes hard to catch because, for example, common sense tells us the elephant is not wearing pajamas, so we can assume what the writer INTENDED…but the elephant IS wearing the pajamas, at least in Groucho’s sentence he is. The modifier is right next to the word “elephant” so he HAS to be wearing the pajamas. It’s hilarious, right? Right?
Not so hilarious is an example of a dangling modifier I read in a student paper. It said something like, “At the age of four, my mother died of cancer.” Common sense tells us the WRITER was four years old when her mother died. Obviously, the mother was not four when she died because if she was, then our writer couldn’t possibly have been born or written this sentence. So who cares? We know what the writer MEANT to say. But think about the topic here. It’s a tender, vulnerable, self-revelatory moment in this student’s essay. Does she really want us to be distracted, not experiencing the sad reality of the words, but instead, for just a split second, living in an episode of The Twilight Zone, considering her mother might possibly have died at the age of four?
Always, always, as a teacher my priority is to help students understand that grammar is not just something that teachers obsess on because we’re all nerds (although it is easy for us to geek out on grammar). Grammar is actually only important as a servant to the written message. Poor grammar makes a poor servant to the message, as in the example above.
Now, what about the difference between a misplaced and dangling modifier? The truth is, if you can spot and correct these kinds of mistakes, then it might not matter to you, or even your teacher, what you call them, but if you are a bit of a word nerd, like I am, then let’s return to the example above. The subject was meant to be “I” as in “I was four years old when my mother died…” Common sense tells us that, but the “I” isn’t even in the sentence. So the modifier is not just misplaced, next to “my mother.” It also happens to be left hanging, or dangling, without its intended subject. However, in the Groucho Marx joke, the subject, “I” (Groucho) is there. It’s just that the modifier has been misplaced, next to “elephant.”
To sum up: If the subject is missing, then we can call this a dangling modifier. If the subject is there, but too far away from the modifier, then we can call this a misplaced modifier. Geek out over.
Estella Ramirez writes poems and sings in Los Angeles, CA. She’s taking time off from teaching to complete her first book of poetry and is writing her first album. She currently works as a private tutor and runs writing workshops.