Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Donn Taylor: Misplaced Modifiers

 On of the basic errors in writing is the misplaced modifier. And in spite of all the copy editing and proofreading that goes into printing most novels, no small number of misplaced modifiers still slip through. The result can be anything from misleading to ridiculous, but always a distraction from the writer's actual meaning. So I am visiting the problem once again, providing a few bits of good advice as well as a few laughs—some from published novels, some from journalism and other sources.

  Because I collect professional writers’ lapses into misplaced modifiers, I’ve been asked to answer these questions: “What is a misplaced modifier and how do writers guard against them? Can you give some examples of your favorites?”

  In normal English usage, a modifying phrase refers to the noun or pronoun (or sometimes verb) closest to it. A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying phrase is placed away from the noun or pronoun the writer intends it to modify. The results are always confusing, but often ridiculous:

     Looking in through the window, the new sofa could be

  This construction places the sofa simultaneously outside the window looking in and inside the building being seen. Physicists tell us this is probably possible with subatomic particles, but they not yet extended that theory to sofas.

 This kind of misplaced modifier usually occurs when the writer begins the sentence thinking active voice and, after the comma, changes to passive voice. The most common cures are to give the modifier something logical to modify or to change the modifying phrase to a dependent clause:

           Looking in through the window, I saw the new sofa.

           or, When I looked in through the window, I saw the new sofa.

  Writers should find their misplaced modifiers during proofing or revision. The cure is always to rewrite the sentence so that the modifier is placed as close as possible to the word (noun, pronoun, verb) it modifies. With that lesson learned, let’s enjoy some prime examples that somehow crept through the editing process in novels from first-line CBA publishers. (I leave to my readers the process of moving the modifier to a logical place or rewriting the sentence to establish logic. I will content myself with a few sardonic comments.)

         “[A] man in grey slacks and a blue blazer holding a
waved at them.”

Comment: Those sports jackets get more versatile every day!

          “Taking his first step, the slippery surface caused
          him to fall flat on his back.”

Comment: Surfaces that walk? Must be Sci-fi.

         “Standing up slowly, a wave of vertigo swept through

Comment: Would things have been worse if the wave had stood up quickly?

         “Having come straight from the airport in the clothes
         they’d worn to travel
, his query made sense.”

Comment: Remarkable! Casually dressed queries rarely make sense.

         “Adorned in mostly homemade ornaments, its pine
         scent mingled with the kitchen aromas.”

Comment: Adorned or unadorned, the scent still smelled. But at least it was sociable.

         “Hidden away in the cabin, my mind continued to

Comment: Confined to the cabin, it couldn’t wander far.

But some of the most ridiculous examples come from local newspapers:

         The governor shot the coyote that he said was
         threatening his daughter’s puppy with a Ruger .380-
         caliber pistol.

Comment: The coyote had his teeth on the trigger.

             The principle to remember: Keep the modifiers close to the words they modify. In revising and proofing, look for misplaced modifiers and move them to their proper places.

Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterward, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges.

He lives near Houston, Texas, where he writes fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics.

In the years following World War II,
a town too proud of its virtues has to
deal with its first murder.


  1. Donn, thank you SO much for this wonderful post! I loved it, and your humor too. lol Misplaced modifiers just happens to be one of my pet peeves, so I got a real kick out of your examples. Hard to believe people don't "hear" what they're writing sometimes (myself included, of course).

  2. Donn, great post! Made me want to dash to my computer and check out my latest manuscript.


    1. Me too, Deborah! I don't usually have a problem with them, but Donn's post made me cringe, just on the offchance one or two might have slipped through. lol

  3. Good post, Donn. Of course, I would expect no less from you. It is amazing how many misplaced modifiers slip into writing. Good to remind us to be watchful.

  4. Well done, as always. Thanks for the smiles!

    1. Thanks for visiting, Sadie and Sophie!

  5. I love misplaced modifiers...I mean I love to laugh at them. I try to make sure I avoid them in my work. ;)

    1. You and Donn should write something together. I can only imagine the humor. :)