One of the most common writing errors is the misplaced modifier. And in spite of all the copy editing and proofreading that goes into printing most novels, no small number of misplaced modifiers still slip through. The result can be anything from misleading to ridiculous, but always a distraction from the writer's actual meaning. So I am visiting the problem once again, providing a few bits of good advice as well as a few laughs—some from published novels, some from journalism and other sources.
Because I collect professional writers’ lapses into misplaced modifiers, I’ve been asked to answer these questions: “What is a misplaced modifier and how do writers guard against them? Can you give some examples of your favorites?”
In normal English usage, a modifying phrase refers to the noun or pronoun (or sometimes verb) closest to it. A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying phrase is placed away from the noun or pronoun the writer intends it to modify. The results are always confusing, but often ridiculous:
Looking in through the window, the sofa could be seen.
This construction places the sofa simultaneously outside the window looking in and inside the building being seen. Physicists tell us this is probably possible with subatomic particles, but they have not yet extended that theory to sofas.
This kind of misplaced modifier usually occurs when the writer begins the sentence thinking active voice and, after the comma, changes to passive voice. The most common cures are to give the modifier something logical to modify or to change the modifying phrase to a dependent clause:
Looking in through the window, I saw the new sofa.
or, When I looked in through the window, I saw the new sofa.
Writers should find their misplaced modifiers during proofing or revision. The cure is always to rewrite the sentence so that the modifier is placed as close as possible to the word (noun, pronoun, verb) it modifies. With that lesson learned, let’s enjoy some prime examples that somehow crept through the editing process in novels from first-line CBA publishers. (I leave to my readers the process of moving the modifier to a logical place or rewriting the sentence to establish logic. I will content myself with a few sardonic comments.)
“[A] man in grey slacks and a blue blazer holding a walkie-talkie waved at them.”
Comment: Those sports jackets get more versatile every day!
“Taking his first step, the slippery surface caused him to fall flat on his back.”
Comment: Surfaces that walk? Must be Sci-fi.
“Standing up slowly, a wave of vertigo swept through him.”
Comment: Would things have been worse if the wave had stood up quickly?
“Having come straight from the airport in the clothes they’d worn to travel, his query made sense.”
Comment: Casually dressed queries rarely make sense.
“Adorned in mostly homemade ornaments, its pine scent mingled with the kitchen aromas.”
Comment: Adorned or unadorned, the scent still smelled. But at least it was sociable.
“Hidden away in the cabin, my mind continued to wander.”
Comment: Confined to the cabin, it couldn’t wander far.
But some of the most ridiculous examples come from local newspapers:
The governor shot the coyote that he said was threatening his daughter’s puppy with a Ruger .380-caliber pistol.
Comment: The coyote had his teeth on the trigger.