Friday, 23 May 2008

Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

Descriptive phrases, such as gerund phrases or prepositional phrases, modify the nearest noun. Misplacing them by putting them nearer another noun can cause some humorous unintended confusion. Sometimes the appropriate noun isn't even in the sentence at all, in which case the modifier is said to dangle. There are countless examples of misplaced and dangling modifiers, given in the form of jokes, that are in circulation. Here are some examples of interesting ones:

  • "Lost: A watch by a lady with a cracked face."
  • "Lost: A shirt by a boy with green and blue stripes."
  • "While driving around town, a tree fell and hit my car."
  • "Running quickly in the winter air, my nose got cold."

Obviously there are countless amusing variations. This particular point of grammar is easy to commit in ignorance, so speakers and writers should be vigilant about avoiding misplaced or dangling modifiers. The following are some more examples, these from actual college essays:

  • "At the beginning of the novel, Tom Joad comes across a turtle on his way home from spending four years in prison."
  • "Only people with cars that live in dorms should be allowed to park in those lots."
  • "Where one parent would be quiet, polite and conservative the other parent would drive up on a black Trans Am full of arrogance and conceit."
  • "Gertrude and Claudius have broken a couple of values which anger Hamlet."

The colloquial speech of the Pennsylvania Dutch is inclined toward this particular error. Two prototypical examples: "Throw Papa down the stairs his hat," and, "Throw the horse over the fence some hay."

For an incomprehensibly convoluted example, here's a real question, once asked of my grandmother: "Let's walk North Hampton street up side by each."


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