Dangling Modifiers

One of the blessings of editing for a living is the unintentional hilarity that is so often peppered throughout our workdays when we discover words and phrases used in ways the authors had not intended. Recall from our September 2016 article “Huh?” that when words are strung together without clear intention, the message conveyed to readers is often not at all what the author had in mind. One of the many perks of this career is finding amusement in those unintended messages.

One rich source of seemingly unceasing amusement is the dangling modifier.

What is a dangling modifier (also called a misplaced modifier)?

Well, let’s start by explaining what modifiers are: in essence, they are words (and sometimes phrases) that provide additional detail and description about something. The often amusing dangling modifier, however, is one that leaves unclear that which is being modified.

While of course we would never use our authors’ working drafts to illustrate our point, it is always fair game to point out other examples already available for public consumption. Consider, for instance, this jim-dandy, which was intended as instructions for bottle-feeding a baby:

Courtesy of http://badnewspaper.com/2017/07/06/writing-skills-101/.

See anything wrong with this phrasing? (We sure hope you do if you have anything at all to do with feeding babies!)

As we’ve mentioned, while dangling/misplaced modifiers are often confusing, for editors in particular, they are also often downright hilarious. Here are some fantastic examples provided by the University of Wisconsin–Madison:

  • Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed. (Why is this wrong? Because the deer was not the one driving.)
  • With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena. (The poodle held his tail high, not the father.)
  • I saw the dead dog driving down the interstate. (Dogs can’t drive, and especially not dead dogs.)
  • He wore a straw hat on his head, which was obviously too small. (His head was obviously too small? Oh, my!)

Or these, offered by Eddie Snipes:

  • The woman walked the dog in purple suede cowboy boots. (’Twas the woman, not the dog, who wore the purple suede cowboy boots. As written, though, it sounds as though ’twas, in fact, the dog.)
  • We saw several monkeys on vacation in Mexico. (The monkeys weren’t the ones vacationing.)
  • I glimpsed a rat sorting the recyclable materials. (The rat wasn’t the one sorting the recyclable materials.)
  • Tom comes across a turtle on his way home from spending four years in prison. (An incarcerated turtle? What on earth did it do to get four years in prison?)
  • Pygmies hunted elephants armed with spears. (The elephants are not the ones armed with spears.)

As we’ve mentioned before, a big part of our job is to focus on an author’s intent and try to assist in selecting the most appropriate words to convey an intended message. Please check out our June 2016 article “What We Mean and What We Say” for more about this. By working with writers to increase their work’s clarity, editors can help writers to present themselves and most accurately impart their message, as we explained in our July 2014 article “Can’t You Just Run a Spell Check?”

Any thoughts to share? Questions? Reach out to us!