Writers must make sure that descriptive phrases modify what they’re supposed to modify. Scribes must pay particular attention to sentences that begin with verbs that end with -ing and –ed (participial phrases), which often lead many writers to construct sentences with a misplaced modifier called—oh, horrors!— the dreaded dangling participle. Other types of misplaced modifiers, including dangling elliptical adverb clauses, may be camouflaged so well that they’re hard to spot in your own writing.
Here’s a sentence that contains a misplaced modifier (a dangling participle):
Walking through the cheering crowd toward the dressing room, people slapped Tony’s back.
The modifying phrase Walking through the cheering crowd toward the dressing room is misplaced because it modifies the noun that follows it—people—instead of the person who walked through the crowd—Tony. That is, Tony walked through the crowd, not the people. Rewrite this way:
As Tony walked through the crowd on his way to the dressing room, people slapped his back.
Some sentences with misplaced modifiers, especially dangling participles, are hilarious. I found this howler in the dining column of a local newspaper:
Stuffed with ham and served with black beans and rice, Mom would never recognize her Saturday night special.
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Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.
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