We’ve got a fairly complex question this time, with more than one example. A friend of mine, also a writer, is having some trouble with modifying clauses, also called modifying phrases. Modifiers, as you may know, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to the characters in our stories.
The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify. The first rule of modifying clauses is:
When a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence.
I just recently came across a perfect example in my own work; this sentence has been there for at least three years now and no one (including 2 critique partners, 3 beta readers and my mother) had noticed it.
“Since childhood, John Patrick taught his children …”
The opening clause must modify the subject (John Patrick), so this sentence makes no sense. It actually says:
“Since John Patrick’s childhood, he taught his children…”
You’ll probably say it’s perfectly obvious that what I meant. But it is, nonetheless, completely wrong. I’ve finally corrected it and it now reads:
“As this child and his siblings grew, John Patrick taught them…”
I replaced the original modifying clause with a complete clause: one that has its own subject and verb. A pretty simple fix.
Now let’s look at a couple of the examples that were giving my friend agida*:
“While he explained his presence, Bill appeared and…”
Since the opening clause modifies the subject (Bill), both “he” and “his” in this sentence refer to Bill. When you substitute Bill’s name for the pronoun and possessive, this sentence says:
“While (Bill) explained (Bill’s) presence, Bill appeared and…”
Obviously, Bill could not be in the middle of explaining things just as he appeared. However, the sentence before this was about George. George was the one explaining his presence, so the modifying phrase belongs in George’s sentence. Another simple fix.
Here’s a third example:
“While doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”
Insert the subject, George, into the modifying clause, and the sentence says:
“While (George was) doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”
However, the reader has already been informed that George is a “person of interest” in the investigation. The opening clause actually refers to the cop who is doing the interrogations. To correct it, it needs the cop’s name in it:
“While Mike was doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”
Again, a simple fix. The trouble is not usually how to fix a misplaced modifier, it’s how to recognize it in the first place.
So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? The rule of thumb is:
FIRST, LOOK AHEAD. When the modifying clause comes first, look ahead to find the subject of your sentence. If the clause correctly modifies the subject, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of all the Rules. To me, there are two kinds of rules–the ones that improve our craft from the ground up, and the others that are simply a sign of the times. The rules of sentence structure fall into the first category: without them, most of us would be writing gibberish. I call them eternal rules, and they’ve been followed by every accomplished writer from Shakespeare on. The more modern rules (like the “said/ask” rule, the “no adverbs” rule) were dreamed up about two generations ago and are probably transitory; in two more generations, other – even more modern – rules will take their place.
The eternal rules create logic and symmetry. Many times, what seems logical to a writer will be confusing to a reader. As writers, we have the inside scoop – we know exactly what we mean to say. But the reader is depending on us to make it perfectly clear to them as well, and the misplaced modifier rules will help to ensure that we do.
So, do you want to know what happens when the modifying clause comes in the middle of a sentence? Check out this spot next week.
* For those not familiar with the term (or the spelling), agida is Italian slang for heartburn. Pronounced ah-jid-ah.