Misplaced Modifiers: Babies Who Smoke

Misplaced Modifiers: Babies Who Smoke

There should be penalties for women having babies who smoke. I agree. Babies smoking! Whatever next? The big problem with the sentence is a common one: misplaced modifiers. We see them everywhere. They can totally mangle the meaning of a sentence. In some cases, though, they are just downright comical.

What are misplaced modifiers?

A modifier is a group of words that adds meaning to (or modifies) another word. You should placed the modifier as close as possible to that word.

In the wrong place, it creates ambiguity, or just nonsense.

Here’s another example:

    • She rode past on a grey horse wearing a pink lacy hat.

And I’m sure the horse looked very fetching in it.

What is a dangling modifier?

A ‘dangling modifier’ is a particular kind of misplaced modifier. Sometimes a modifier is there to add meaning to a word or phrase that isn’t even in the sentence. It just ‘dangles’, with no purpose.

Here’s an example:

    • At the age of nine, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

Already a mother at the age of nine?

Obviously that’s not right.

Because it has nothing to do, the modifier ‘At the age of nineseems to be adding meaning to whatever word or phrase it happens to be closest to, which is ‘ my mother’, so it becomes a dangling and misplaced  modifier – with hilarious results.

Can you fix these sentences?

Here are my suggestions. 

How To Correct Misplaced Modifiers

It’s not really difficult. The best way is to rearrange or rewrite incorrect sentences so that they really do say what you want them to say.

Now back to the original examples of misplaced modifiers. I have reworded them slightly so they make proper sense.

I have placed the modifier (in blue) next to the word it modifies (in bold)

    • There should be penalties for women who smoke when having babies (or, better still)
    • There should be penalties for women who smoke while they are pregnant
    • Wearing a pink lacy hatshe rode past on a grey horse. 

Remember the third example, of a dangling modifier?

    • At the age of nine, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

The dangling modifier (in blue) was comical because it seemed to be describing ‘my mother’.

Question: Who was aged nine? The sensible answer is ‘I was’.

The dangling modifier was supposed to add meaning to ‘I’, which didn’t even appear in the sentence. To fix it, we need to put the ‘I’ in.

In this case, though, a modifier would make the sentence sound clumsy. It’s better to write a new clause, with ‘I’ as its subject.

    • When I was nine years old, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

The supporting clause (in green), gives more information about the main clause, by saying when it happened.

You might think misplaced, or dangling, modifiers are just minor details, but when they confuse the meaning of your message, or make it sound ridiculous, your potential clients will notice.

Here’s one last example.

Can you identify this misplaced modifier?

I enjoy receiving my Word of the Day from Dictionary.com, but I was a little disappointed when I saw this entry:

Definitions for ‘putsch’

1.  A plotted revolt or attempt to overthrow a government, especially one that depends on suddenness and speed.

Now I’m guessing that a government ‘that depends on suddenness and speed’ (and I’d like to know which government that might be) is less likely to be overthrown.

But that’s not the problem. Because that’s not what the sentence meant at all.

Did you spot the misplaced modifier in the definition?

The clause ‘that depends on suddenness and speed’ should refer to ‘a plotted revolt’, not to ‘a government’.

The modifier is definitely in the wrong place.

The definition should read:

1. An attempt to overthrow a government; a plotted revolt, especially one that depends on suddenness and speed’.

See more examples of Lazy Language

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