Misplaced Modifiers: Babies Who Smoke

There should be penalties for women having babies who smoke.

I agree. Babies smoking! Whatever next?

Seriously, though, the big problem with the opening sentence is a common one: the problem of misplaced modifiers.

We see them everywhere. They can totally mangle the meaning of a sentence. And, in some cases, they are just downright comical.

What are misplaced modifiers?

A modifier is a group of words that adds meaning to (or modifies) another word. You should place the modifier as close as possible to that word.

In the wrong place, it creates ambiguity or just nonsense.

Here’s another example:

She rode past on a grey horse wearing a pink lacy hat.

And I’m sure the horse looked very fetching in it.

Warning: This example is very revealing!

Amelia wore a simple sleeveless white wedding dress with a plunging neckline which fell all the way to the floor.

Can you fix these three sentences?

Have a go and then read on.

How To Correct Misplaced Modifiers

It’s not difficult. All you have to do is reword the sentences slightly so they make proper sense.

I have placed the modifiers (in bold) next to the words they modify (‘women’, ‘she’)

There should be penalties for women who smoke when having babies.

(or, better still)

There should be penalties for women who smoke while they are pregnant.

Wearing a pink lacy hat, she rode past on a grey horse.

Look at the third example again. This one was a little tricky because there were two modifiers (in bold).

Amelia wore a simple sleeveless white wedding dress with a plunging neckline (1) which fell all the way to the floor (2).

The second one is misplaced, because it sounds as though it is modifying ‘neckline’.

The wedding dress was beautiful and revealed a charming décolletage but there was no neck to floor reveal, which would have been totally inappropriate and quite shocking. It was the hemline, not the neckline, that ‘fell all the way to the floor’.

An easy fix for the sentence would have been to change the misplaced modifier into an adjective (‘floor-length’), and put it before the noun it was supposed to describe (‘wedding dress’).

The result:

Amelia wore a simple, sleeveless, white floor-length wedding dress with a plunging neckline.

Can you identify this misplaced modifier?

I enjoy receiving my Word of the Day from Dictionary.com, but I was a little disappointed when I saw this entry:

Definitions for ‘putsch’

1. A plotted revolt or attempt to overthrow a government, especially one that depends on suddenness and speed.

Now I’m guessing that a government ‘that depends on suddenness and speed’ (and I’d like to know which government that might be) is less likely to be overthrown.

But that’s not the problem. Because that’s not what the sentence meant at all.

Did you spot the misplaced modifier in the definition?

The clause ‘that depends on suddenness and speed’ should refer to ‘a plotted revolt’, not to ‘a government’.

The modifier is definitely in the wrong place.

The definition should read:

1. An attempt to overthrow a government; a plotted revolt, especially one that depends on suddenness and speed’.

What is a dangling modifier?

A ‘dangling modifier’ is another type of misplaced modifier. An inexperienced writer will often put one into a sentence to add meaning to a word or phrase that might be in the writer’s mind but certainly hasn’t been included in the sentence.

As a result, the modifier just ‘dangles’, with no purpose.

Here’s an example:

At the age of nine, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

Already a mother at the age of nine?

Obviously, that’s not right.

Because it has nothing to do but dangle, the modifier ‘At the age of nine’ attaches itself to whatever word or phrase it happens to be closest to, which is the subject of the sentence, ‘ my mother’.

Now it’s a dangling and a misplaced modifier — with hilarious results.

Here it is again:

At the age of nine, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

How might you fix it?

It’s not really difficult. The best way is to rearrange or rewrite the sentence so it says exactly what you want it to say.

The dangling modifier (in bold) was comical because it seemed to be describing ‘my mother’.

Question: Who was aged nine? The sensible answer is ‘I was’.

The dangling modifier was supposed to add meaning to ‘I’, which didn’t even appear in the sentence. To fix it, we need to put the ‘I’ in.

In this case, though, a modifier would make the sentence sound clumsy. It’s better to write a new clause, with ‘I’ as its subject.

When I was nine years old, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

The supporting clause (‘When I was nine years old’), gives more information about the main clause, by saying when it happened.

You might think misplaced, or dangling, modifiers are just minor details, but when they confuse the meaning of your message or make it sound ridiculous, your potential clients will notice.

It isn’t too hard to get it right. A little logic will do it.

See more examples of Lazy Language

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