Thursday, March 25, 2010

Those Misplaced Modifiers Dangle, Too!

When I chose my topic for this week, I thought I’d only be talking about misplaced modifiers. That was the term I’d learned years ago for one of my pet peeves of grammar--and I’ve got a lot of those. It turns out that my major peeve is more about dangling modifiers, the term I learned as I started researching the topic.

Interestingly, I happened upon a dangling modifier almost the moment I took on this topic. It was right in the middle of a best-selling novelist’s thriller, and the editors hadn’t caught it. I won’t name the book or author, but here’s most of the sentence: “At twelve years her junior, she felt like she’d be robbing the cradle.” The reference was to the subject’s attraction to a guy who was twelve years younger than she is. However, the way this reads, she is, herself, twelve years younger than herself! In other words, the modifying phrase “at twelve years her junior” refers to the subject of the rest of the sentence, which is “she.” Definitely an impossibility.

So how should this read to be correct? How about something like, “Since he was twelve years her junior, she felt like she’d be robbing the cradle.” That’s an easy fix, right?

I’m a believer in synchronicity, and, not unexpectedly, I ran into another example of a dangling modifier while I was pondering this blog post. One of my sons had to send a letter to a credit card company explaining a complaint against a retailer. It was an excellent letter but, smart guy that he is, he asked his mom to look at it. One of the sentences read more or less as follows: “After questioning the capacity of this subwoofer, the salesman assured me it was a great woofer that would have no problem handling the power.” Of course the salesman wasn’t questioning the capacity; my son was. However, the initial phrase appeared to be referring to the subject of the sentence, the salesman. The fix I suggested? “After I questioned the capacity of this subwoofer, the salesman assured me it was a great woofer that would have no problem handling the power.”

This kind of language issue can happen a lot. Is it the end of the world if you use one? Of course not, but a reader can be knocked out of the story for a minute if the incorrect usage is odd enough to make that reader start pondering what the sentence really means. Better to avoid the problem in the first place.

Now, to my other topic: misplaced modifiers.

What do you think when you read the following sentence:
The crying woman visited a shrink with extreme emotional issues.
Who appears to have the issues? The shrink, of course. If the modifier was in the correct place, the sentence would instead read, “The crying woman with extreme emotional issues visited a shrink.” The first way was an example of a misplaced modifier.

Where a modifier is placed makes a big difference in the interpretation of a sentence--even a small modifier! For example, look at how moving the word “just” changes the meaning of each of the following:
Andrea was just designated to be the hostess on the reality TV show.
Andrea was designated to just be the hostess on the reality TV show.
Andrea was designated to be the hostess on just the reality TV show.

Hopefully, those examples give you enough information to remind you to watch where you place your modifiers.

Have you ever come across dangling or misplaced modifiers that caught your attention while reading?

7 comments:

Peg said...

Oh, all the time - I often wonder what happened to the grammar lessons that we got all those years ago, did everybody else sleep through them? LOL

Christine Thresh said...

It should be "I hope." See:
http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000223.htm

Janie Emaus said...

Way too much to think about just now or is it just too much too think about now or just now my mind is a bit confused!

Betty Hechtman said...

Excellent post, Linda! Your examples were great and really made your points clear.

Linda O. Johnston said...

I used to enjoy grammar lessons, Peg, especially since I was learning French grammar at the same time.

Oops, Christine! I may enjoy grammar, but I admit mine isn't perfect, especially when I try to write in a way that's conversational.

Grammar isn't always the most exciting topic, Janie, or always the clearest. Sorry if it was a bit confusing.

And thanks, Betty. It was fun putting this post together.

Camille Minichino said...

Speaking of errors in best-selling novels -- the one I'm reading has about a dozen cases of using "that" instead of "who" to refer to a person.

ugh.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Ugh indeed. Camille. On the other hand, I use "who" instead of "that" to refer to animals a lot in my stories despite what spellcheck and my editors tell me!