Sunday, July 12, 2009

Misplaced, Dangling and Squinted Modifiers

Modifiers are just what they sound like—words or phrases that modify something else. Misplaced modifiers are modifiers that modify something you didn't intend them to modify. For example, the word onlyis a modifier that's easy to misplace.

These two sentences mean different things:

I ate only vegetables.

I only ate vegetables.

The first sentence (I ate only vegetables) means that I ate nothing but vegetables—no fruit, no meat, just vegetables.

The second sentence (I only ate vegetables) means that all I did with vegetables was eat them. I didn't plant, harvest, wash, or cook them. I only ate them.

It's easiest to get modifiers right when you keep them as close as possible to the thing they are modifying. When you're working with one-word modifiers, for example, they usually go right before the word they modify.

Here's another example of two sentences with very different meanings:

I almost failed every art class I took.

I failed almost every art class I took.

The first sentence (I almost failed every art class I took) means that although it was close, I passed all those classes.

The second sentence (I failed almost every art class I took) means that I passed only a few art classes.

Note again that the modifier, almost, acts on what directly follows it—almost failed versus almost every class. In either case, I'm probably not going to make a living as a painter, but these two sentences mean different things.

A similar rule applies when you have a short phrase at the beginning of a sentence: whatever the phrase refers to should immediately follow the comma. Here's an example:

Rolling down the hill, Squiggly was frightened that the rocks would land on the campsite.

In that sentence, it's Squiggly, not the rocks, rolling down the hill because the word Squiggly is what comes immediately after the modifying phrase, rolling down the hill.

To fix that sentence, I could write, “Rolling down the hill, the rocks threatened the campsite and frightened Squiggly.” Or I could write, “Squiggly was frightened that the rocks, which were rolling down the hill, would land on the campsite.”

aardvark hillHere's another funny sentence:

Covered in wildflowers, Aardvark pondered the hillside's beauty.

In that sentence, Aardvark—not the hillside—is covered with wildflowers because the word Aardvark is what comes directly after the modifying phrase, covered in wildflowers.

If I want Aardvark to ponder a wildflower-covered hillside, I need to write something like, “Covered in wildflowers, the hillside struck Aardvark with its beauty.”

Here, the words the hillside immediately follow the modifying phrase,covered in wildflowers.

Or better yet, I could write, “Aardvark pondered the beauty of the wildflowers that covered the hillside.”

Modifiers are so funny! In addition to misplacing them, you can dangle them and make them squint!

A dangling modifier describes something that isn't even in your sentence. Usually you are implying the subject and taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean—not a good strategy. Here's an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The way the sentence is written, the birds are hiking the trail because they are the only subject present in the sentence. If that's not what you mean, you need to rewrite the sentence to something like, “Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.”

And how do you make a modifier squint? By placing it between two things that it could reasonably modify, meaning the reader has no idea which one to choose.

For example:

Children who laugh rarely are shy.

As written, that sentence could mean two different things: children who rarely laugh are shy, or children who laugh are rarely shy.

In the original sentence (Children who laugh rarely are shy) the wordrarely is squinting between the words laugh and are shy. These are called squinting modifiers (or sometimes they are also called two-way modifiers).

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