The errors writers and editors make

Do you know what’s wrong in this sentence?

Growing up in Minnesota, one of my favorite things was going to the state fair each summer and watching the guy who would guess your weight within 5 pounds. — “Losing Weight in the Gulf,” Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, Dec. 12.

The participle at the beginning of the sentence is dangling — hanging out there the way Wile E. Coyote does when he runs out of cliff while chasing Road Runner. A participle phrase at the beginning of a sentence should modify the subject of the sentence. But “growing up in Minnesota” doesn’t describe “one of my favorite things.” It was meant to describe the writer himself.


An easy fix would be to rewrite the first part of the sentence, turning it into a clause: When I was growing up in Minnesota …

One of our editors pointed this out to our staff Wednesday. Friedman is a well-known columnist, of course, and he works for a well-edited newspaper. That’s why my colleague was struck by the error. It sticks out like sore thumb when you isolate the sentence, but I sympathize with the copy editor who missed this dangler. Such constructions are easy to overlook. Editors have to train themselves to catch these things. You could argue that Friedman’s meaning was clear in his lead sentence. A reader would know that Friedman was referring to himself. Dangling and misplaced modifiers can cause confusion, though, and that’s why it’s a good practice to avoid them.

Misplaced modifiers can be funny, too. Here are a few (none from real sources — I made them up):

Milking the cows at the crack of dawn, the barn became a quiet refuge from the chaos of my life.

Dressed in a new dark blue suit, my first day on the job started with a visit to the ladies’ room to throw up.

Grabbing the keys and heading out the door in a rush, my car wouldn’t start.

Have you seen any good dangling or misplaced modifiers lately? Post a comment or send a note.

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.