Problems with Modifiers

It can be tricky to get prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses placed so that they refer clearly to the right noun or verb.

Positioning Modifiers

Incorrectly positioned modifiers are high on the list of errors that writers make because the alarm bell doesn’t go off when they reread (and especially when they don’t reread). Here, for instance, is a sentence from Vanity Fair, as reprinted in The New Yorker:

ERROR: Behind the impenetrable windows of the prison waiting area, where death-row inmates in the state of Texas entertain all visitors until they are executed by lethal injection, Donald Aldrich tries to explain some of the psychology that went into the killing of Nicholas West that November night in 1993.

One could easily save innocent lives by moving the “until” clause to the beginning of the sentence:

Until they are executed by lethal injection, death-row inmates in the state of Texas entertain all visitors behind the impenetrable windows of the prison waiting area, where Donald Aldrich tries to explain some of the psychology that went into the killing of Nicholas West that November night in 1993.

And in a letter acknowledging the gift of an ornament:

ERROR: We love the angel, and it is flying at the moment over the kitchen table, where we spend so much time attached to the curtain rod.

We love the angel, and it is flying at this moment attached to the curtain rod over the kitchen table, where we spend so much time.

ERROR: Before the piranhas had dined we learned it wasn’t advisable to go skinny-dipping. [The writer’s point is not when we learned about the skinny-dipping but when it was safe to go in the water.]

We learned it wasn’t advisable to go skinny-dipping before the piranhas had dined.

ERROR: Miss Hiss used the technique in the evening performance I had recommended. [What was recommended was the technique, not the performance.]

Miss Hiss used the technique I had recommended in the evening performance.

In the evening performance, Miss Hiss used the technique that I had recommended.

ERROR: Having realized that cobra training was no occupation for a frog, the idea of puppet-show stardom finally entered Kermit’s brain. [The non-finite verb phrase having realized that cobra training… needs to be positioned just before or after the noun it modifies. Here, it looks as though the idea did the realizing, not Kermit.]

Having realized that cobra training was no occupation for a frog, Kermit finally conceived the idea of starring in a puppet-show.

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Dangling Modifiers

It’s always fun to spot a dangling modifier in someone else’s sentence (or in your own before anyone else finds it). A “dangler” is a modifying phrase that comes at the beginning of a sentence, where it looks at first glance as though it modifies the subject but actually should modify something else. The something else may or may not appear in the sentence:

ERROR: To get the most out of this course, tattoos should be obtained within the first week of classes. [The tattoos aren’t taking the course; the element that's missing is the students.]

To get the most out of this course, students should get their tattoos within the first week of classes.

ERROR: Searching for a new eating sensation, our spicy Jell-O sandwiches were a big hit. [If you ask who or what was searching? it can’t be the sandwiches. We need to add searchers.]

Our spicy Jell-O sandwiches were a big hit with those fast-food fiends who had been searching for a new eating sensation.

ERROR: While practicing the new viper polka, the audience arrived. [The audience didn't practice the polka.]

While the cast was practicing the new viper polka, the audience arrived.

ERROR: As a film of German origin, I find it quite interesting. [When the author of this sentence took a second look, she realized that she had simply meant to say that the film she was writing about was the first German film she had seen, and that she liked it.]

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