Beyond Participial Phrases: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

Not long ago, we looked at how participles—verb forms that function as adjectives—can easily be misused, both by novice writers and by writers with decades of experience. The result is absurd or incomprehensible sentences that may give a good laugh to your reader even as they shatter her confidence in your expertise.

It’s easy to blame dangling participles. The truth is that other ways of constructing sentences are equally vulnerable to creating misplaced modifiers that your readers will mock. So today, we’re going to explore a little deeper into the dense thickets of English grammar. I hope you packed your pith helmet and machete.

What Exactly Is a Modifier, and How Does One Get Misplaced?

Grammar mavens use the term modifier to mean a word or phrase that refines the meaning of another word (or phrase) in the sentence. The modifier adds descriptive color or detail to the sentence as a whole. Adjectives and adverbs are both primarily modifiers. Adjectives modify nouns only; adverbs may modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs.

But the function of a modifier isn’t limited to these two parts of speech. Other varieties of word structures—prepositional phrases, relative clauses, participial phrases, and many others—can also provide a descriptive function.

Some languages rely on inflection—changes in word endings or forms—to indicate how those words function in a sentence. In Latin, for instance, one could look at various forms of the word puella, meaning girl, and say with confidence the word was the subject of the sentence, or an indirect object, or a possessive, or the object of a preposition. English doesn’t work that way. English is a weakly inflected language: nouns and verbs change endings to indicate singular or plural, and verbs change to indicate tense, nouns have a possessive inflection, and some pronouns have objective and nominative forms, and that’s about it. In most cases, it’s the way words are arranged within a sentence that determines their grammatical function.

This explains misplaced modifiers. Every modifier attaches its descriptive meaning to the closest available word that it can modify. So an adjective, for instance, would attach to the nearest noun as its subject; it wouldn’t modify a verb, even if that were a closer word, because adjectives cannot modify verbs. Likewise, a prepositional phrase that is functioning like an adjective would also attach to the closest noun or noun phrase. If a writer is careless in arranging his sentences, a modifier will attach to the wrong word and produce an unintended meaning. This is what’s called a misplaced modifier.

A related defect in writing is the dangling modifier, where a phrase or clause can’t be attached to any appropriate words at all, because the right word is absent in the sentence. Look at this example: Ravenous after the basketball game, the plate of cold fried chicken from the refrigerator was quickly eaten. As written, it’s the plate of fried chicken that is “ravenous.” While misplaced modifiers can usually be revised by moving a word or phrase closer to the subject, a dangling modifier always requires that the sentence be rewritten: Ravenous after the basketball game, the teammates quickly ate the plate of cold fried chicken from the refrigerator.

Does This Really Show Up on Professional Websites?

You betcha. Here are some real-world examples I have collected over the past few weeks (as always, with a few modifications to avoid embarrassing the writers):

  • Unfortunately, an estimated five out of every thousand newborns suffer some sort of brain damage during delivery from oxygen deprivation.
  • Surgical equipment was left in your body following a procedure, like clamps or surgical sponges.
  • As a Denver law firm, distracted driving is a top concern.
  • Find out whether your heel spurs are the cause of your heel pain from a Toronto podiatrist.
  • Learn how to dress your foot wounds at home and avoid infection from an Iowa podiatrist.
  • I work with people who are injured in auto accidents every day.
  • Here’s what you can do to get relief from an Indiana spine podiatrist.
  • Shower tips: How to care for your foot after surgery in the shower

Hmm. I believe I would prefer not to have surgery in the shower, thank you.

The Most Dangerous Word in the English Language

A few words demand special handling in order to guarantee the writer’s meaning speaks forth clearly. These words are especially versatile modifiers that could appear almost anywhere in a sentence. The writer has to be especially careful to place the word in precisely the right spot, or else a completely novel and unintended meaning can result.

My nominee for the riskiest of these words is only, with just a close second. Consider how different placement of “only” can alter your understanding of a simple six-word sentence:

  • Only you can prevent forest fires. Nobody else can prevent them, just you.
  • You can only prevent forest fires. You might be able to ward off fires before they start, but you can’t extinguish them once the forest is burning.
  • You can prevent only forest fires. You’re helpless to prevent a house fire.
  • You can prevent forest fires only. You can’t do anything when a flood, ice storm, or other disaster strikes a forested area.

Scary, isn’t it, how critical placing only one word can be? If you only stop and think deeply the next time you use “only” in a sentence, this article will have been a success.

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