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Get a Good Laugh With Misplaced Modifiers

by | Jul 4, 2015 | Writing Tips | 1 comment

Did your mom ever call out the entire list of your siblings’ or pets’ names before getting to yours? I only have two sons and I do it already. There’s just something about being a parent (sleep deprivation, anyone?) that can make it really hard to format your thoughts into coherent sentences. Any time you say something you don’t mean, it can give you a good laugh – whether in the moment, or after time has passed.

Misplaced modifiers, for example, can create some pretty funny double meanings. There are several hilarious newspaper headlines that perfectly illustrate this.

 – Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Counter

– Miners Refuse to Work after Death

What Is a Misplaced Modifier?

Modifiers can add depth and color to your writing. They provide additional information and can make a sentence much more interesting. However, when a modifying clause is placed awkwardly in a sentence, it may refer to an unintended word. Phrases generally modify the subject that they appear closest to.

– We saw dinosaurs on a field trip to the natural history museum.  (Dinosaurs were taking a field trip?)

– Having gathered dust in the storage room for years, I finally get to use my croquet set. (How did you survive in the storage room for that long?)

Why Does It Happen?

There are a few things that can cause people to misplace their modifiers – in addition to being too tired to concentrate, I mean. When people try to make their writing sound elegant, they frequently use a modifier at the beginning of a sentence. If that modifier doesn’t match up with its nearest neighbor, the sentence can end up saying something very different than intended.

– Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed by the teenager.

– Dressed in a diaper and drooling, Grandpa read a book to his granddaughter.

Long sentences can also be a risk factor in writing. When people try to include too many ideas in a single sentence, it is very easy to place the modifier in the wrong spot.

– Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.

– The patient was referred to a psychologist with several emotional problems.

How Can You Find and Fix the Issue?

One of the most effective ways to avoid misplaced modifiers is to simplify your sentences. If you are having a hard time fitting all of the information in one sentence, split it into two. Even if you want your writing to be descriptive and eloquent, it is better to be concise than to inadvertently tell your readers that Grandpa was dressed in diapers and drooling, or that a deer was driving like a maniac. Above all, make sure that you position your modifiers directly adjacent to the word they are modifying. That way, you can avoid unintentionally becoming a comedian.

What are some of the funny misplaced modifiers you have seen? If you’re looking for help on grammar rules, check out some of our other GrammarSpot posts.

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