Monday, August 27, 2007

Grammar: Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them (Part 19 - Dangling, Misplaced Modifier)

The results of a dangling or misplaced modifier can be disastrous.

Modifiers are any adjectives, adverbs, phrases, or clauses that a writer uses to elaborate on something. Modifiers, when used wisely, enhance your writing. But if they are not well-considered -- or if they are put in the wrong places in your sentences -- the results can be less than eloquent. Consider, for example, this sentence:
The professor wrote a paper on sexual harassment in his office.

Is the sexual harassment going on in the professor's office? Or is his office the place where the professor is writing? I hope he was writing the paper in his office, not on the sexual harassment in his office. If that is the case, then the original sentence contains a misplaced modifier and should be re-written accordingly:
In his office, the professor wrote a paper on sexual harassment.

Always put your modifiers next to the nouns they modify.

Dangling modifiers are a different kind of problem. They intend to modify something that isn't in the sentence. Consider this:
As a young girl, my father baked bread and gardened.

The writer means to say, "When I was a young girl, my father baked bread and gardened." The modifying phrase "as a young girl" refers to some noun not in the sentence. It is, therefore, a dangling modifier.

Other dangling modifiers are more difficult to spot, however. Consider this sentence:
Walking through the woods, my heart ached.

Is it your heart that is walking through the woods? It is more accurate (and more grammatical) to say, "Walking through the woods, I felt an ache in my heart." Here you avoid the dangling modifier.

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