Modifiers, as we’ve discussed, 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 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, and so causes confusion. I discussed the first rule of modifying clauses in this article: First, Look Ahead.
Briefly, the first rule is: when a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence. But what happens when the modifying clause comes after the subject of the sentence? Then the clause must modify the last noun (whether a person or thing) that appears in that sentence. (Exception: there must be agreement in gender; when dealing with a pronoun or possessive, you’d go back to the last person of that gender who was mentioned.)
Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when he kidnapped his sister.
The modifying phrase here is “when he kidnapped his sister”. In this case, the last male person referenced is Bill. Therefore, the “he” in the modifying clause must refer to Bill. Substituting Bill for “he” in the sentence, we wind up with this:
Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when (Bill) kidnapped his sister.
It makes no sense at all, but it’s an easy fix. Substitute the kidnapper’s name (or another identifier) for “he”, and we have:
Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when Mike kidnapped his sister.
Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when the intruder kidnapped his sister.
We could even turn it around to:
When the intruder kidnapped his sister, Bill vowed to get her back at any cost.
All three of these sentences are correct and all now properly identify the person who did the kidnapping. But until we identified the other person, all male pronouns belonged to Bill.
Here’s another example:
Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer.
You figured it out, didn’t you? The last person named was the dealer, and he didn’t have a broken odometer. The modifier belongs to the noun “car”, and the proper way to phrase this sentence is:
Never buy a car with a broken odometer from a dealer.
As with the first rule, it can be apparent what a writer means in a sentence like Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer. But it’s not up to the reader to interpret our work. It’s our job as writers to say exactly what we mean to say.
Here’s a third example:
Looking in vain for an answer to the questions, all excitement dwindled.
This one is fairly easy to recognize as wrong. But it may not be so easy to identify the problem and correct it, because the problem doesn’t fall solely within the modifying clause. The problem is that the sentence doesn’t have a proper subject/verb combination. It doesn’t say who was looking for the answers, or whose excitement dwindled. In fact, this
sentence statement consists of two incomplete clauses.
Every sentence needs to give the reader someone/something to whom they can attribute the actions that are represented. So the correction would be:
As Bill looked in vain for an answer to the questions, his excitement dwindled.
As we looked in vain for an answer to the questions, all of our excitement dwindled.
Most of these were pretty simple fixes. The problem is not usually how to fix misplaced modifiers, it’s how to find them in the first place. So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? Just as the first rule of thumb is FIRST, LOOK AHEAD, the second rule of thumb is:
LATER, LOOK BACK. When the modifying clause comes later in the sentence (after the subject), look back to find the last person/noun mentioned. If the clause correctly modifies that person or noun, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.
Again, as in our first article, some will say that a previous sentence or paragraph contains the necessary information to show the reader what we mean. But the simple fact is that every sentence needs to stand on its own. Sentences are the building blocks of our work; every sentence needs to say exactly what we want it to say, without interpretation. To protest that the information needed is in the previous paragraph, or in the next sentence, is the equivalent of saying it’s on the previous page, or in the next chapter. Or on page 45 of Oliver Twist.
“But wait,” you say, “aren’t there exceptions to the rules?”
Of course there are. But we can only get away with breaking the rules if we stick to them most of the time. Then, what we’ve done is considered “poetic license” (or “literary license” if you prefer). Otherwise, it’s likely to be seen as just plain laziness.
Got a sentence/paragraph that you don’t know what to do with? Is it keeping you up nights? For specific input on a specific problem, send your sentences (up to 150 words) along with your question, using the About Me/Contact Info page on this blog. Be sure to put “Ask Giff” in the subject line. Grammar is my passion and I’m happy to help!