Monday, April 7, 2014

Driving down the road, a pothole ate my car.

To be honest, I love dangling modifiers. I even collect them. The idea of a pothole driving my car tickles me pink.

What? You don’t get it? Look closely at the title of this post. “A pothole ate my car” is fine. It has a subject, verb, direct object. It’s a classic example of personification, giving animate qualities to inanimate objects. On the other hand, “driving down the road” is an adjectival clause, but what does it describe? It’s just dangling there at the beginning of the sentence. The only thing it can describe is the pothole.  But how can a pothole drive a car?

You might think, “But isn’t it understood that ‘I’ was driving the car?” Well, no. You could get away with saying this in dialogue, because people do say things like that, but not in narrative. In narrative you need to be crystal clear. The solution is to turn the adjectival clause into an adverbial clause: “As I was driving down the road, a pothole ate my car.”

Here’s another one. “Captured around the neck, the lariat terrified the horse.” Did you know lariats had necks? Neither did I. And why would a horse be terrified of a lariat captured around its non-existent neck? The poor horse is terrified at being captured around the neck by a lariat. Or you could say, “The lariat around its neck terrified the captured horse.” 

Misplaced modifiers can be just as much fun. Er, just as confusing. A notable one came up in a description of a down and dirty street fight: “She kicked the guy in the privates wearing the Lacoste shirt.” I nearly fell out of my chair howling at the mental image of some poor peon in a Chinese sweat shop, sewing oddly shaped little shirts for Lacoste. Obviously, the guy, not his privates, was wearing a Lacoste shirt.

How about this one: “She watched the brown-haired guy with envious eyes.”  Who had the envious eyes, him or her? In this example and the one above, the solution is to keep the prepositional phrase (in the privates, with envious eyes) as close to the word it modifies as possible. This can mean simply moving it, but more often a better solution is to rewrite the whole sentence. You may lose some hilarity, but gain clarity.

Here’s a series of sentences with one word moved. See how that one word can change the meaning?

Today the man we hired to mow our lawn is sick. (He’s sick today.)
The man we hired to mow our lawn today is sick. (He’ll mow the lawn today, not tomorrow.)
The man we hired today to mow our lawn is sick. (We just hired him today, even though he’s sick.)
The man we hired to mow our lawn is sick today. (He’s sick today.)

All of these sentences are grammatically correct, yet they have different meanings. (The first and last are equivalent, of course.) All I did was move the word “today.” For another example, try replacing “today” with “only.”

Only the man we hired to mow our lawn is sick. (Not the man we hired to trim the shrubs.)
The man we hired to mow our lawn only is sick. (He’ll mow our lawn, not the neighbors’ lawn.)
The man we hired only to mow our lawn is sick. (He won’t do any other work for us.)
The man we hired to mow our lawn is sick only. (He’s not dying.)
 The last one is awkward but would work as “The man we hired to mow our lawn is only sick.” 

English is very flexible with where one can place modifiers, but that flexibility has consequences. To have your sentences say what you want them to say, make sure your modifiers are where they belong. 

Kinan Werdski, editor
The Wild Rose Press


Marlow Kelly said...

Thanks so much for this. It will certainly make me check and double check my modifiers.

Unknown said...

That really makes me take a closer look at my sentences. Thanks for the excellent post.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Kinan, I have a real love/hate relationship with dangling modifiers. They irritate me but make me laugh.

Sadly I haven't managed to collect any nearly as funny as yours. Thanks for cheering the day.

Laura Strickland said...

Thanks for shining a little humor on the dastardly dangling modifier, as well as making sense! Very useful information.