One of my favorite writing subjects is the misplaced modifier. Few aspects of writing are quite so much fun.
For example, what’s wrong here: “Born at the age of 42, the baby was a great joy to the mother.”
It’s simple. Unless we have an amazing medical “first” here, the mother, not the baby, was 42. As written the phrase “born at the age of 42,” is a misplaced modifier, a term that describes single words, phrases, or clauses that do not point clearly to the word or words they modify.
How can you avoid making this mistake? One way. Keep related words together so that readers can see quickly what is being modified. (Or as the saying goes: “Modifiers are like teenagers: they fall in love with whatever they’re next to. Make sure they’re next to something they ought to modify!”)
So “the baby, born when the mother was 42, was a great joy.”
Misplaced modifiers can show up in an amazing number of ways, and correcting them can sometimes require rewriting part of the sentence. Consider these examples:
Misplaced modifier: “He hit the ball hard after a visit to Starbucks.”
Corrected sentence: “After a visit to Starbucks, he hit the ball hard.” (The ball didn’t get a latte; he did.)
Misplaced modifier: “Jogging through the neighborhood, my ankle became sprained.”
Corrected sentence: “Jogging through the neighborhood, I sprained my ankle.” (The ankle, by itself, did not jog. The person did.)
Misplaced modifier: “A writer who is more popular now than during her lifetime, hundreds of readers enjoy books by Louisa May Alcott every year.”
Corrected sentence: “Every year hundreds of readers enjoy books by Louisa May Alcott, a writer who is more popular now than during her lifetime.”
You get the idea. If you’d like more examples, do a search on “misplaced modifiers.” Many good websites provide clear explanations on this writing challenge.
Susan Monroe says
One of my favorite misplaced modifiers is “homeless advocate.” What is meant is “advocate for the homeless,” in which case the modifier becomes a noun and ceases to to be a modifier.
Probably crafted in the name of journalistic economy, still the image it calls to mind is sad.
Thanks very much.