freelance editor

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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How to professionally format your manuscript for editors, agents, and publishers

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

How to format your finished manuscript for editingMost of the MS Word manuscripts I receive are not properly formatted for editing.* Instead, I get all kinds of unusual formatting, from a stylized, ready-for-print book to 37 chapters all in separate files, each with a hodge-podge of formatting. While it’s not difficult for me to clean up an improperly formatted manuscript, if you can save me time and put a smile on my face at the same time, wouldn’t that be a great start to our author-editor relationship? And if you’re planning to submit to an agent or publisher without the help of an editor, the following steps are essential.

Sometimes I receive manuscripts that have been meticulously formatted as though that version is the one that will be going to press. This is well-intentioned but a mistake. Please avoid using multiple, fancy fonts or other unusual design elements or formatting to try to make your manuscript look like a finished book. You’re not at the design stage yet, and an editor will only undo all your efforts, stripping them out to get a plain version ready for editing.

The rule of thumb for formatting a manuscript for editing is 12-point Times Roman font for the main text, 1″ or 1.25″ margins, left-justified text (aligned against the left margin), double spacing (although my personal preference is 1.5 line spacing). Offset material like block quotes can be set in a sans serif font like Calibri. If you plan to submit your manuscript to an agent or contest, be sure to also follow any specific formatting guidelines for individual submissions.

Those are the basics. Here are more things you can do to make your editor do a happy dance before the work even begins.

•  For most manuscripts, prepare as one single file, no matter how large. (Exceptions may be made for scholarly works where there are a number of contributing authors.) Use Dropbox if the file is too large to e-mail. If you send chapters in separate files, I’ll only have to copy and paste them all together, which can be time consuming. This is because when I’m editing, I don’t just edit line by line. I’m constantly searching back and forth in the manuscript for clarification and consistency, and it’s impossible to do this among 37 separate files unless many hours are added to the editing time.

•  No page numbers in the table of contents, please. They’re meaningless at this stage and will change dramatically between now and your final proof copy. After the editing is complete, typesetting and layout are done, and page numbers will be added during this stage. Page numbers are then checked for accuracy in the proofreading stage.

•  Chapter headings should be uniform and start a line or two down the page. Add the extra lines in manually, after you have completed all the automated formatting below. I don’t mind if you use boldface type and a larger font for chapter headings, but avoid using all-capital letters or underlining. Those styles are outdated.

•  Paragraphing. For fiction, each new paragraph should have automatic indents (using the ruler, never tabs or the space bar)―four or five character spaces is standard. Some agents and publishers prefer that nonfiction uses no indents; instead, leave a line space between each paragraph. This is not a rule but a style choice, so check with your agent or publisher. If you’re self-publishing, it’s up to you. In general, if you use indents, don’t use a line space between paragraphs; if you use a line space, don’t use indents. Below, I explain how to set indents on MS Word’s ruler.

 Avoid using tabs or the space bar for indenting or centring text. If you want to centre any text such as chapter headings (which really isn’t necessary), highlight or place your cursor in the text you want to centre and press Ctrl+E.

•  Insert automatic page numbers in the top right corner position of each page. Always paginate your MS Word manuscript; if you don’t do it, your editor will. If you have header material such as the book’s title, place that in the top right corner, and place your page numbers in the bottom right corner. The reason? So the editor’s eye, following the main text, isn’t disturbed by a number or header in the top left corner when moving to a new page.

manuscript ready for formattingHere are some further suggestions for manuscript cleanup that will make your editor’s job easier. The best way to do these is to first turn on the Show/Hide button, which looks like a backwards P, like this: ¶ (it’s called a pilcrow). You’ll find it on the Home tab on the top ribbon in MS Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016. This will show all hidden characters: spaces show as dots, tabs as arrows, manual line breaks as bent arrows, hard returns as pilcrows, page breaks as a row of tiny dots, and non-breaking spaces as circles (among others). The hidden character button ¶ is a toggle button, and you can turn it off when you’ve finished formatting.

•  Remove all double spaces between sentences and other extra spaces created by using the space bar. Your manuscript should contain no multiple spaces. Double spaces at sentence end are an outdated practice harking back to typewriter days when proportional spacing didn’t exist. Removing them takes seconds using the Find and Replace feature in MS Word (Ctrl+F in Word 2007; Ctrl+H in Word 2010 and 2013). Simply type two spaces (tap the space bar twice) in the Find what box and type one space in the Replace with box. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

  Remove all tabs. The hidden character for a tab is an arrow, like this →. Book designers loathe tabs, and if you’re hiring a designer after the editing, she will be filled with gratitude to find no tabs in your document. Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^t (caret symbol and lowercase letter t). Leave the Replace with box empty. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

“Fine,” you say, “but not really, because now I have no indents.” Well, if you are self-publishing, you can choose not to use indents if your work is nonfiction. You simply need to add a line space (an extra hard return) in between block paragraphs (see ^p in the next tip).

If your work is fiction, memoir, or if your publisher or agent submission guidelines call for indents, use the top ruler to create them. Under the View tab, make sure the Ruler box is checked. Next, highlight your entire document (Ctrl+A). Then hover your cursor over the top left slider on the ruler. It should say “First line indent.” Slide it four character spaces to the right, and voilà!―all your paragraphs following a hard return will be properly indented.

  • Note #1: Never use the space bar or tabs to indent!
  • Note #2: The first line of any new chapter or section should not be indented, a long-established publishing convention. You’ll need to go through manually and un-indent those, or your editor can do it for you.

•  Remove all extra hard returns. The hidden character for a hard return (created when you press the Enter key) is also a pilcrow ¶. Authors tend to use hard returns to start a new page or chapter because they don’t know how to make a proper page break using Ctrl+Enter. Please, get rid of all those extra hard returns! Your editor will worship you.

For nonfiction, you may wish to leave two hard returns at the end of each paragraph to create a line space between block paragraphs (again, this is a style choice). Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^p^p^p. In the Replace with box, type ^p^p. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

For fiction, you want only one hard return at the end of each paragraph. Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^p^p. In the Replace with box, type ^p. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made. If you need to add in a hard return to provide an extra line space, do this process in reverse.

•  Remove extra spaces from the beginning and from the end of paragraphs. These extra spaces at the beginning and end of paragraphs sneak in by the thousands. While they’re relatively harmless, it’s just better to have a clean manuscript in case anyone (like an agent) is peeking behind the scenes at Show/Hide.

To remove extra spaces from the beginning of paragraphs, open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^p followed by a space (space bar). In the Replace with box, type ^p (with no space). Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

To remove extra spaces from the end of paragraphs, open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type a space (space bar) then ^p. In the Replace with box, type ^p (with no space). Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made. Your manuscript should now be free of all extra spaces at the beginning and end of paragraphs.

•  Remove all manual line breaks. A manual line break (also known as a soft return) ends the current line and continues the text on the next line without starting a new paragraph. I find that authors inadvertently insert them in the strangest places. Line breaks are made by pressing Shift+Enter, and appear as a bent arrow in hidden characters. Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^l (caret symbol and lowercase letter el). Leave the Replace with box empty. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made. Your manuscript will now be free of any inadvertent manual line breaks.

  Add in proper section breaks at the end of each chapter. You want each new chapter to begin on a new page, but please don’t hit Enter twenty times! Assuming you’ve first gotten rid of all those pesky hard returns, place your cursor after the very last sentence of a chapter, and press Ctrl+Enter. Voilà—your next chapter will start on a new page.

There are other things you can do to polish your formatting, particularly if you’re submitting to an agent. For example, in nonfiction, a double line space after a paragraph sometimes looks like too much space. You can finesse the amount of space between paragraphs by opening the Paragraph dialogue box on the Home tab. There, you can play around with Spacing Before or Spacing After to get just the amount of space you want. This is especially useful if you have block quotes, bulleted lists, tables, graphics or images, and you want to finely tune the space around them.

As mentioned, you can manually add one or two hard returns back in at the top of each chapter, above and below the chapter title (and subtitle, if there is one), just to give some visual space. Subheadings within chapters usually have more space above them, but little below, to anchor them to their topic, much as you’ll see throughout this website.

In this brief article, it’s been my goal to provide you with some simple formatting basics. Once you get the hang of using Find and Replace for some of these functions, you won’t believe how fast it can go. Delight your editor before the work has even begun by sending him or her a properly formatted manuscript.

And if you have any formatting issues I haven’t addressed here, please let me know in a comment and I’ll be pleased to help you solve them.

♠  ♠  ♠

freelance editor

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
October 24, 2013

_____________________

* Instructions are for MS Word for Windows.

_____________________

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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