Misplaced modifiers, better known as dangling modifiers, have caught many a writer unaware. I’ve found the things in my own writing. Although my mistake did not turn one of my brothers into a zombie (Just click on the link and look at the last rule listed. It’s funny, I promise.), it was noted by a dutiful professor and his or her red pen. I still am prone to misplacing modifiers; it happens when I’m in the middle of writing and not paying attention to what I’m doing. I’m trying to get the words on the page. It is my role as an editor that pays attention to such things and notes when I have inadvertently disconnected a modifier from its true subject.
Some modifiers are more likely to dangle than others: participles, infinitives, and prepositions are a few of the culprits. Passive voice is another danger; it typically states what is done to a subject rather than what a subject does. I know it might be hard to envision some of those things when they’re dangling – I know I struggle – so I think it’s time for some examples.
Participles: look for words ending in “-ing.”
- Passing the building, the vandalism by the zombies became apparent.
- In this example, it isn’t clear who or what is passing the building. The vandalism certainly isn’t.
Infinitives: look for phrases beginning with “to.”
- To get to safety, the ladders were hidden.
- The ladders probably weren’t trying to get to safety. It’s more likely that people were trying to get to safety, and they hid the ladders from the zombies.
Prepositions: look for – wait for it – prepositions.
- After waiting inside a small room (always a bad idea – remember the rules) for hours, the sun began to peek over the edge of the horizon.
- As far as I know, the sun doesn’t wait inside a small room. A person might, though.
Those are some simple examples of misplaced modifiers, but they should begin to clarify the point. Misplaced modifiers, wherever they occur, are what they are described as being: misplaced. They need to be placed correctly so that the meaning of the sentence and possibly the entire work is clear.
Have a question about misplaced modifiers? Leave it in the comments. Also, if you know of a writing wrong in need of righting or have a suggestion for a future Write Right post, let me know on my Facebook page. Your wrong or suggestion could be featured in an upcoming post.