Accidental comedy in grammar—dangling and misplaced modifiers

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Dangling and misplaced modifiers

The inspiration for this blog post came from a juice box.

I was standing at the fridge one morning a few weeks ago, getting a drink of Sun-Rype juice—a well-known brand where I live—when I read the following on the side of the box: “Nestled in the heart of British Columbia, Canada lays a lush green valley of orchards renowned for sun-ripened fruit.”

Oh dear. Canada is nestled in the heart of British Columbia? Canada lays a lush green valley? Don’t we Canadians have a better reputation to uphold?

Of course, being an editor, I cannot let a grammar problem or typo go uncorrected. I’m a bit like a milder version (much milder) of Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame with her black felt pen. So the first thing I did was write to the company, Sun-Rype, to inform them of their grammatical transgressions (I hope I sounded friendly and not too schoolmarm-ish). Then I shared it with my friends and colleagues on Facebook, and we all had a good chuckle.

Now, the problem with this absurd sentence isn’t only a dangling modifier. No, this is a trio of grammar problems. The dangler was created because the verb lays should be lies; as well, the word Canada must be offset by commas on both sides. Without these, the effect is to create a bizarre dangling modifier, where the phrase doing the modifying, “Nestled in the heart of British Columbia,” makes no sense with the noun (Canada) that it appears to be modifying. Canada “laying” just about anything is just adding more nonsense to the absurdity.

Modifiers defined
What is a misplaced modifier? What is a dangling modifier? What, for that matter, is a modifier? You’ve heard these terms, no doubt often as the heart of a joke, and with good reason. Don’t get hung up on the word modifier; it’s simply a word or phrase that describes another part of the sentence. Modifying words and phrases that accidentally end up modifying (describing) the wrong thing or nothing at all can often end up causing hilarity. But funny isn’t always a good thing. When you’re trying to communicate a message, the focus should be on what you’ve said, not how you’ve said it. So, keeping the technical terms to a minimum, let’s look at some of these abused modifiers—misplaced, squinting, limiting, and dangling—and what causes them. Then we’ll have a few laughs—despite the awkward messages.

Misplaced modifiers
A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying word, phrase, or clause is too far away from the subject it is modifying (describing), rendering the sentence awkward, ridiculous, confusing, or illogical.

In the sentence, “We found the contact lens during dinner on the carpet,” the prepositional phrase on the carpet (which functions as an adverbial phrase here, in case you wanted to know) is modifying the subject, contact lens. We found the contact lens where? On the carpet. As it stands, it appears dinner is the subject being modified.

Correct a misplaced modifier by placing the modifying phrase as close as possible to the subject it’s modifying.

Examples:
Confusing: We found the contact lens during dinner on the carpet.
Clear: During dinner, we found the contact lens on the carpet.
Confusing: The dealer sold the Ferrari to the buyer with the leather upholstery.
Clear: The dealer sold the Ferrari with the leather upholstery to the buyer.
Confusing: Too many dogs are killed by cars that roam unleashed.
Clear: Too many dogs that roam unleashed are killed by cars.
Confusing: The waitress served a roll to the woman that was well buttered.
Clear: The waitress served a well-buttered roll to the woman.

Squinting modifiers
A squinting modifier is a type of misplaced modifier that can refer to either the preceding or the following word(s), creating ambiguity. Squinting modifiers can “look both ways,” hence the term squinting.

A modifier can’t modify more than one grammatical element at a time. In general, correct squinting modifiers by placing them immediately before the word or phrase they modify, but if they’re still squinting, rearrange the sentence so there’s no ambiguity.

Examples:
1. Hiking up hills quickly strengthens your quad muscles. (Unclear whether quickly is modifying hiking up hills or strengthens.)
2. People who exercise often get results. (Unclear whether often refers to exercise or to get results.)
3. The politician discussed the high cost of living with several women. (Unclear whether cost of living is a unit or of living with several women is a unit. Of living is squinting both ways.)
4. The man she hoped would satisfy her completely frustrated her. (Unclear whether completely modifies satisfy her or frustrated her.)

Limiting modifiers
A limiting modifier limits the meaning of another word in the sentence, usually the word immediately following it. If it is misplaced, an entirely different meaning is created, depending on the placement. Typical limiting modifiers are adverbs like only, just, even, exactly, nearly, hardly, simply, merely, and almost. Only is by far the most misplaced limiting modifier.

Examples:
1. Only I want him to marry me. (Nobody else wants him to marry me.)
2. I only want him to marry me. (I want him to marry me, but I don’t need him to.)
3. I want only him to marry me. (I want no one else but him to marry me.)
4. I want him only to marry me. (Marrying me is the only thing I want him to do.)
5. I want him to only marry me. (Marrying me is the only thing I want him to do.)
6. I want him to marry only me. (I want him to marry me and no one else.)
7. I want him to marry me only. (I want him to marry me and no one else.)

Do you see how the meaning is different for most of these sentences?  In the above examples, #2 could also mean “All I want is for him to marry me.” #5 is a tad weak because it’s a split infinitive (though there’s nothing grammatically wrong with a split infinitive), and #7 modifies me by default, since that’s the word closest to the last only.

In general, correct limiting modifiers by placing them immediately before the word or phrase they modify.

Dangling modifiers
A dangling modifier occurs when the modifying word, phrase, or clause makes no logical sense with the subject it seems to be modifying, and moving it to another part of the sentence doesn’t help the clarity or logic. Danglers are usually (but not always) found at the beginning of the sentence, and because they’re not connected logically with the subject closest to them, they’re considered to “dangle” there uselessly. They often come in the form of a prepositional, adverbial, or participial phrase (don’t worry about the technical terms, but check the links if you’d like more detailed descriptions). A participle is a verb that ends in –ing or –ed, just like the one in my first example: “Nestled in the heart of British Columbia, Canada lays a lush green valley…”

More examples:
Dangling: Having finished the assignment, a night out on the town beckoned.
Revised: Having finished the assignment, she was beckoned by a night out on the town.
Dangling: Seated comfortably in the theatre, the movie began.
Revised: They were seated comfortably in the theatre when the movie began.
Dangling: At ten years old, my parents were divorced.
Revised: When I was ten years old, my parents were divorced.
Dangling: Still in the hospital, the bandages were removed from his wound.
Revised: Still in the hospital, he had the bandages removed from his wound.

Most often, what’s noticeable with danglers is the lack of a logical subject. Correct dangling modifiers in one of two ways: 1. Leave the modifier as it is, but change the subject in the main part of the sentence to be the word that is actually modified. This will ensure the modifier is right next to the word it modifies. {Still in the hospital, he had the bandages removed from his wound.} 2. Add a subject and verb to the modifier, creating a subordinate clause rather than an adverbial or prepositional phrase. {When I was ten years old, my parents were divorced.}

Google “funny dangling modifiers” or “funny misplaced modifiers” and you’ll find a lot to chuckle over. Here are a few from the Internet and from my colleagues to get you going:

  • This elevator stops on the third floor only during office hours. (Editor Arden Ogg worked in this building for months before realizing she could, in fact, take the elevator to her office on the fourth floor.)
  • Living the strenuous life of a playboy in Europe and America, his wife grew increasingly mentally unstable. (Chambers Biographical Dictionary, entry on F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
  • Pubs on both the Shankill and Falls Roads were among the first to come under scrutiny before advancing to more central locations. (The Independent, 1 May 2007. Gives new meaning to the phrase, “pub crawl.”)
  • For many years there was a male-only bathing spot near Dublin called “the Forty Foot.” A sign at the entrance read “Forty Foot Gentlemen Only.”
  • When US Marine Logan Thibault finds a photograph of a smiling woman half-buried in dirt during his third tour of duty in Iraq, his first instinct is to toss it aside. (On the back cover of The Lucky One, a book by Nicholas Sparks.)
  • With some of her new money she also bought a very early black and white television set. Mounted in a grand wood veneer cabinet, her grandchildren clamoured to come over and watch it. (From a biography of Roald Dahl.)
  • The Scarlet Letter is the tale of Hester Prynne, laid in New England.
  • Completely engulfed in flames, I was unable to identify the building.
  • After drinking too much, the toilet kept moving.
  • Being very tired, the alarm failed to disturb Morton’s sleep.
  • With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena.
  • Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  • I saw an accident walking down the street.
  • Crawling out of my tent one morning, I saw an elephant in my pajamas.
  • Being wet, green, and warty, the princess gave the frog the kiss he needed so badly.
  • After drinking beer at a bar, the car would not start.
  • He wore a straw hat on his head, which was obviously too small.
  • A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.

And if you still haven’t had enough, one of my fellow editors found this excellent collection of abused modifiers gathered by author Eddie Snipes: http://www.eddiesnipes.com/2011/07/funny-dangling-and-misplaced-modifiers/.

What about you? Have you come across any really funny dangling or misplaced modifiers? If so, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave them in the comments below.

♠  ♠  ♠

freelance editor

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
November 7, 2013

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* Some examples have been modified from those found in The Little, Brown Handbook, 2nd Edition, by H. Ramsey Fowler (1983) and at http://www.towson.edu/ows/moduledangling.htm. Others are my own, from the Internet, or from my generous colleagues.
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I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a few minutes before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

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  • John Tunschel

    My God lady, I was thinking of writing a book…No seriously I was. Even have a title “Free Range Escaragot” it was thought of in a Rob Ford drunken stupor in the Red Coach Inn in 100 mile House during the Gustafanson Lake Standoff. And yes after way to many drinks I may have been accused of having a dangling modifier, but never was it explained to me in this fashion.

    My eyes have been opened. I will not let my modifier dangle again.

    Thanks. And yes I will need an editor to make sure I do not alow my modifier to dangle.:)……..

    • Arlene Prunkl

      John, you’re writing a book? Seriously? That’s fabulous! And you know I’ll be delighted and honoured to be your editor. I’ll make sure no bits are dangling by the time we’re finished. 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comment and subscribing!

  • Roberto Blizzard

    Thank you for this, Arlene. I’d never heard of squinting modifiers. Along with the wonderful jokes, I like the way you did the examples for limiting modifiers, with that descending diagonal arrangement. I think it’s delightful that you wrote to the company about the grammar on their juice box. You’ve made grammar fun. More, please.

    • Arlene Prunkl

      Thanks for your reply, Roberto. I’m glad you figured out the Disqus commenting system! Yes, grammar can be fun—and I love it when we can learn stuff at the same time. I’m trying to think of another funny post about grammar, but I don’t think there’s anything quite as funny as dangling and misplaced modifiers. 🙂

  • Valerie Brooks

    See? And people think our jobs as editors are dullsville. Not true. We are actually laughing at our authors’ malapropisms. Thanks for this, Arlene!

    • Arlene Prunkl

      You’re most welcome, Valerie, and thanks for your comment. It’s true; if we couldn’t occasionally laugh at our authors’ gaffes, our profession would be a sombre one indeed.

      Your comment reminded me of one of my favourite things to laugh at, something that’s often caused by us editors. Sometimes the results are hilarious when we do a global find-and-replace and discover the craziest words inadvertently inserted into the manuscript we’re working on. Hmm, I may do a blog post about that one day soon!

  • Pingback: Why dangling and misplaced modifiers matter | The Proof Angel()

  • darkocean

    That sentence that is left unedited is driving me crazy. It must be revised!

    *laughs like a mad scientist. *

    In a lush green valley nestled in the heart of, British Columbia, Canada, are orchards renowned for sun-ripened fruit.

    It’s still driving me crazy it needs more conjunctions. I think. lays/lies how does a orchard lie down anyways? That sentence … yeak.

    Thanks, for the lesson 🙂

    Apologies if I messed this up completely, I still don’t trust myself with grammar, but thought I would take a stab at it.)

    • Your revision is good, but there is no comma after “of.” In a lush green valley nestled in the heart of British Columbia, Canada, are orchards renowned for sun-ripened fruit.

      • darkocean

        Thanks, I’m still week of where to put commas sometimes. The teachers I had growing up weren’t much help in that they said to just put one where there was a pause. For me that resulted in the wrong spot 90% of the time. I have several websites explaining about independent/dependent causes and such. I never knew commas had so much power. xD