Dangling Modifiers

Editing is always a must, but occasionally a line or two escapes an editor – misplaced modifiers in particular.  These can even been comical; changing the meaning of the sentence entirely.

So what is a dangling or misplaced modifier?  A modifier is a word, a phrase or a clause that changes the meaning of other words by adding description or precision.  Modifiers can act as adjectives or as adverbs.

A humorous example would be: Covered with melted cheese, we ate the pizza.

Hopefully the author is referring to the pizza covered in cheese and not the people eating it.

Often these sentences can be easily fixed by changing the voice from passive to active. We ate the pizza covered in melted cheese.  Now the sentence makes sense.

The Associated Press Style Book outlines “squinting modifiers,” which are less obvious errors.  It describes the error as “a misplaced adverb that can be interpreted as modifying either of two words” and gives the example: Those who lie often are found out.  Tricky!  The simple solution is to place the adverb where there’s absolutely no confusion, even if a compound verb must be split up: Those who often lie are found out. Or, if that was not the intended meaning, there’s another option: Those who lie are often found out.

Next time you’re watching the news or reading the paper, keep a sharp eye out for these misplaced modifiers – I’m sure you’ll come across a few!  Here’s an example someone gave from the evening news: “A woman at a Wal-Mart was saved by a fellow customer who shot the attacker with a knife.”  What’s going on here?  Who has the knife and who has the gun?  Reading this sentence it seems like the knife is some modern firearm which shoots bullets as well.  I have a feeling this is not the case.  My point (no pun intended) is that misplaced modifiers are everywhere and easily ignored during the editing process.

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