In the English language, words are generally understood to go with the words that are near them. Putting words in other places in a sentence often makes the sentence unclear — or even silly. The problem is generally with misplaced or dangling modifiers. These modifiers are generally prepositional phrases or participial phrases. Misplaced phrases are simply near the wrong word in the sentence. In dangling phrases the word they modify isn’t in the sentence at all. Misplaced modifiers are often hard to catch and are a common writing problem.
Here is my favorite dangler:
While still in diapers my mother remarried.
Since while still in diapers is next to my mother, the sentence actually means my mother was still in diapers. While still in diapers refers to me, which isn’t even in the sentence and needs to be added: While I was still in diapers, my mother remarried.
Here is another dangler, missing “I”:
Reading a book by the window, my cat jumped onto my lap.
This would be silly unless cats have recently learned to read. While I was reading a book by the window, the car jumped onto my lap.
The two examples above contain dangling participles. Here is a misplaced one:
She read from her new book wearing glasses.
Although we pretty much assume it is the author who is wearing the glasses, the sentence says that the book is wearing glasses because the words are placed next to one another.
Here is a misplaced prepositional phrase:
You might like this mixing bowl set designed to please an expert cook with a round bottom for efficient beating.
Who or what has the round bottom? The cook? You might like this mixing bowl set with a round bottom for efficient beating, designed to please an expert cook.
Here are more fun ones:
You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursday.
(Daily except Thursday, you are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian composers, artists, and writers are buried.)
I must ask you to banish all information about the case from your mind, if you have any.
(I must ask you to banish from your mind all information about the case, if you have any.)
Many of the members congratulated him for his speech at the end of the meeting and promised him their vote.
Here, we cannot tell if the members congratulated him at the end of the meeting, or if his speech was at the end of the meeting. (Many of the members congratulated him for his speech and promised him their vote after the meeting was over.)
You might be interested in this antique desk suitable for a lady with thick legs and large drawers.
(You might be interested in this antique desk with thick legs and large drawers, suitable for a lady.)
I am selling several old dresses from grandmother in beautiful condition.
Who is in beautiful condition? (I am selling several old dresses in beautiful condition that belonged to my grandmother.)
The farmer wanted to hire someone to take care of his horse who doesn’t’ smoke or drink.
(The farmer wanted to hire someone who doesn’t smoke or drink to take care of his horse.)
We almost made a profit of $10.
How much did you make? Answer at the end of this post.
While we are having fun with words, here are some questions for you:
Is there another word for synonym?
If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?
Does the little mermaid wear an algebra?
How is it possible to have a civil war? (good oxymoron)
If you try to fail, but you succeed, what have you done?
Answer to teaser:
You may not have made anything at all.
We almost made a profit of $10. You almost made a profit. You didn’t make anything.
We made a profit of almost $10. You may have made $9 or $9.99…whatever profit you made, it was almost $10.
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit on writing nonfiction books. It includes checklists, templates, worksheets and more. Check it out!
I gotta add these instructions that came with a new coffee kettle: “Do not apply open flame to kettle or put in dishwasher.” Why would anyone want to put an open flame in a dishwasher?