“Josie saw the rain clouds walking down the street.”
“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” – Groucho Marx
Hopefully reading the quotes up above made you smile, giggle or even roll off your seat, doubled over with laughter. If you find yourself rather puzzled as to why, then keep reading (but keep reading anyway, everyone!).
The quotations posted above are examples of dangling, or misplaced, modifiers. What is this newfangled notion?
As you probably already know or can tell, “modifier” is a term that refers to words or phrases that describe something or add information to something. Modifiers can be adjectives, adverbs, phrases or clauses. A dangling modifier is one that has been placed incorrectly in a sentence, so that it can’t connect to the object it’s supposed to be describing.
So Groucho Marx’s “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas” could technically mean that Groucho shot an elephant who was wearing Groucho’s pajamas. Most of us read this sentence and think, “Well duh, he means that he was wearing his pajamas when he shot the elephant.” The meaning may be obvious here but that’s not always the case; plus, when you’re submitting a manuscript, you want your grammar to follow the usual rules, right?
Here are some more examples of dangling modifiers:
“Covered in a delicious layer of frosting, he wasn’t surprised when he found out his best cupcakes had won the competition.”
(OK, that’s weird, the guy who baked the award-winning cupcakes is covered in frosting!)
“Small, round and ugly, Nancy thought the baby was anything but cute.”
(If Nancy’s so unappealing, then why is she so ready to judge a baby based on its appearance?)
Usually, it helps to place the modifier next to the object it’s describing. As others have said, “Modifiers are like teenagers: they fall in love with whatever they’re next to.”
So: “He wasn’t surprised when he found out his best cupcakes, which were covered in a delicious layer of frosting, had won the competition.”
Keep a close eye out for dangling modifiers; your brain will be quick to correct the meaning of one so you might not even notice it. But an editor will! Plus, dangling modifiers are just so much fun to read and find.