Misplaced Modifiers: How to Find Them and How to Lose Them
Remember Groucho Marx's famous quip? "One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know." What makes this joke work is, of course, the misplaced modifier "in my pyjamas." But what if Groucho hadn't added that second sentence? Would you have noticed a problem?
What Are Misplaced Modifiers?
Put simply, misplaced modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses separated from the words they are intended to modify or refer to and placed so that they modify other words instead. The term "misplaced modifier" is often used as a catch-all term that includes dangling participles, dangling infinitives, squinting modifiers, and the like. Here, however, we'll be focusing only on misplacement. Here are a few examples:
- I only have eyes for you.
- Half a century after Baskerville's death, his body was found by workmen under a pile of gravel.
- We put out a call for more people to bake cookies for the club's bake sale at Saturday's meeting.
How to Find Them
What makes misplaced modifiers so tricky to catch is that they are often close enough to what they're intended to modify that we automatically "fix" the sentence as we read, in much the same way as we adjust the misspellings of words. (For more on this, see my blog "Proofreading: Nobody Is Prefcet" from January 13, 2015.) It's close enough; we know what's meant. So, look closely at where your modifiers are placed. (If possible, have someone else read your text; a "fresh eye" often spots errors that the authorial eye doesn't.)
The first example's immortal appeal as a song title does not absolve it of grammatical inaccuracy. We'd like to think that "only" modifies "you," but it doesn't – it modifies "have." (The Platters' 1955 hit "Only You" got it right.) Mistakes in the placement of "only" are rampant, and they're tricky to catch because we are so skilled at understanding what the author intends to say even when the word is incorrectly placed.
In the second example, the modifier is the phrase "under a pile of gravel," and its placement means that it functions in the same way as Groucho's "in my pajamas." It modifies "workmen"– creating a disquieting image, to say the least – instead of "body."
In the third example, the misplacement is less obvious, and it creates ambiguity. The phrase "at Saturday’s meeting" could refer to either the call for more cookies or the bake sale itself. Is the bake sale part of an upcoming Saturday meeting? Or was the call for more cookies put out at a Saturday meeting prior to the bake sale? Probably the latter.
How to Lose Them
This is pretty simple: move them to where they belong, tweaking wording as necessary.
Whenever you see "only," make sure it’s either directly before or after the word or phrase it's meant to modify.
So, grammatically correct (albeit thoroughly unpoetic), the first example becomes "I have eyes for only you."
- Incorrect: I only have eyes for you.
- Correct: I have eyes only for you.
When modifiers are misplaced, the passive voice is very often involved.
In the second example, simply moving the phrase so that it follows "body" isn’t enough. You'd end up with "his body under a pile of gravel was found by workmen," with an awkward distance between "body" and "was found." Switching from the passive to the active voice helps, though.
- Incorrect: Half a century after Baskerville's death, his body was found by workmen under a pile of gravel.
- Correct: Half a century after Baskerville's death, workmen found his body under a pile of gravel.
If you have a modifier specifying time or place, it's often wise to place it at the beginning of the sentence.
Avoid tacking time or place specifiers onto the ends of sentences, where they could modify almost anything preceding them.
- Incorrect: We put out a call for more people to bake cookies for the club's bake sale at Saturday's meeting.
- Correct: At Saturday's meeting, we put out a call for more people to bake cookies for the club's bake sale.