Modify what you mean to modify

Writers sometimes let their modifiers dangle because they’ve put them in the wrong place. I have wanted for some time to write about misplaced modifiers. I hesitated because, frankly, I must resort to grammar terms that can make one’s eyes glaze over. But here goes.

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When we write about modifiers, we can mean single words, phrases or clauses. These words or groups of words describe or give more information about a person, a thing or a concept. An adjective is a modifier. Prepositional phrases act as modifiers. One of the most common modifiers is a participial phrase. A participle is a form of a verb, either ending in -ing or in whatever form the past is written (-ed is the most common). Phrases formed with these words act as adjectives and often appear as introductory phrases at the beginning of a sentence. They should, then, describe the subject of the sentence. If the phrase doesn’t do that, then it is said to be misplaced or dangling.

Here is an example I encountered in a story:

Originally snapped up by Warner Independent Pictures after it played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the distributors canceled its fall release date and eventually discarded it.

The phrase “originally snapped up …” does not describe the subject of that sentence “the distributors.” Instead, it describes the film that the distributors decided to put on a shelf.

Here is my revision:

The film was originally snapped up by Warner Independent Pictures after it played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the distributors canceled its fall release date and eventually discarded it.

Here is a made-up example that might be even clearer:

Rushing down the street, my hat blew off when a gust of wind caught it.

The hat was not “rushing down the street.” The participial phrase doesn’t go with the subject of the sentence. It’s dangling without a noun to hang onto.

Writers have trouble spotting these in their own work, and it’s often the editor who finds the danglers and fixes them.

The Purdue University Online Writing Lab explains how to fix dangling modifiers and the related problem or squinting modifiers.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.