Monday, July 11, 2011

Modifiers Misplaced

Of all the writing errors you can make, misplaced modifiers are among the most likely to confuse your readers (and possibly you). A modifier is just what it sounds like—a word or phrase that modifies something else. And a modifier placed wrongly can modify something you don't intend it to modify.
For example, the word just is a modifier that's easy to misplace. Look at these two sentences:
Or is that me just wishing we’d be back to normal? (In this sentence, I’m only wishing, not doing anything else.)
Or is it just me wishing we’d be back to normal? (Here it’s only me doing the wishing. No one else.)

Another modifier commonly out-of-place is the word only:
I ate only potatoes. (By saying this, I ate nothing but potatoes—no meat, no fruit, just potatoes.)
I only ate potatoes. (All I did with the potatoes was eat them. I didn’t wash them, cook them, mash them. I just ate them.)

TIP: It's easiest to get modifiers right when you keep them as close as possible to the thing they are modifying. When you're working with one-word modifiers, for example, they usually go right before the word they modify. Words like almost, even, exactly, hardly, just, merely, nearly, only, scarcely, and simply should come immediately before the word they modify.

Here's another example of two sentences with very different meanings:
I almost tripped over every step on the way to class. (This means that although it was close, I didn’t trip over any steps.)
I tripped over almost every step on the way to class. (This means that I did trip over several steps.)

How to Use Commas with Modifiers
I beta read a lot of manuscripts and a very common mistake I see is writers not placing the subject of the sentence directly after a prepositional phrase in the beginning of the sentence. Here’s the RULE:  when you have a short phrase (at the beginning of a sentence), whatever the phrase refers to should immediately follow the comma. Look at this example:

Crashing on the sand, Brooklyn was frightened the waves would ruin her sand castle.
In this sentence, it's Brooklyn, not the waves, crashing on the sand because the word Brooklyn is what comes immediately after the modifying phrase, crashing on the sand.
To fix that sentence, I could write, “Crashing on the sand, the waves threatened to ruin Brooklyn’s sand castle.” Or I could write, “Brooklyn was frightened the waves, which were crashing on the sand, would ruin her sand castle.”

When checking for misplaced modifiers:
1. Find the modifier.
2. Make sure the modifier has something to modify.
3. Make sure the modifier is as close as possible to the word, phrase, or clause it modifies.

Here are some funny misplaced modifiers:
~I saw a hawk and a deer on the way to the airport. (Were the hawk and the deer on the way to the airport?)
~She served waffles to the children on paper plates. (Were the children on paper plates?)
~He nearly brushed his teeth for ten minutes every night. (Did he come close to brushing his teeth but in fact did not brush them at all?)
~The woman bought a dress at the store with purple stripes. (Did the store have purple stripes?)
~We saw several birds looking out our window. (Hmm. So the birds were inside?)

Here’s an exercise (don’t groan, this is good for you): choose one of these funny misplaced modifiers and correct it in the comments below. Ready? Go!

Comic credit:

1 comment:

  1. A friend sent me to your blog. Great info!

    She served waffles to the children on paper plates. (Haha. I can picture it.)

    Here's how I'd correct it:
    Waffles, on paper plates, were served to the children. OR Children were served waffles on paper plates.