In the English language, words are assumed to belong with the words they are written next to. When words are put in the wrong place, the writing may be difficult to understand, or it might even be unintentionally ridiculous. This grammatical error is sometimes known as the “dangling participle” or just the “misplaced modifier.” Let’s look at some examples.
Here is one I like to show to my students:
“While still in diapers, my mother remarried.”
Well, you might just skip by it, whether you have written it or are reading it….and assume it means what it should….but it doesn’t. The way it is written says that my mother was still in diapers when she remarried. Probably not what the writer meant?? Since “my mother” comes right after the participial phrase “while still in diapers,” it is assumed that they go together. There are usually many ways to fix a sentence. Here is the most logical fix:
“While I was still in diapers, my mother remarried.”
Here is another one:
“The girl walked her dog wearing a bikini.”
Once again, you might go right by this one and not notice that anything is amiss. However, since the phrase (participial again) “wearing a bikini” comes right after dog, it really means that the dog is wearing a bikini. Now, even my Chihuahua didn’t wear a bikini! Here’s a possible fix (there are many):
“Wearing a bikini, the girl walked her dog.”
Here is one that is hard to pick out, but it may actually make the meaning of the sentence confusing:
“The audience members congratulated him on his speech at the end of the meeting and promised their support.”
Have you found the problem? You really cannot tell what it was that happened at the end of the meeting. In all likelihood, the audience members congratulated him at the end of the meeting. However, the sentence says that his speech was at the end of the meeting.
Here is one possible fix:
“At the end of the meeting, the audience members congratulated him and pledged their support.”
One of the most commonly misplaced words is the word only. It seems as if it is put in the incorrect place most of the time, and while you can usually still understand the sentence correctly, look at how important its placement is. Read these five sentences. They are the same except for the placement of the word only.
- Only she made a speech at the meeting.
- She only made a speech at the meeting.
- She made the only speech at the meeting.
- She made the speech only at the meeting.
- She made the speech at the only meeting.
Each sentence has a different meaning, depending on which word only is placed near. Here are the different meanings:
- No one else made a speech at the meeting – only she did.
- She made a speech, but she didn’t do anything else at the meeting.
- Aha! Means the same as the first sentence. No one else made a speech.
- She didn’t make a speech anywhere else – just at the meeting.
- There was no other meeting.
Well, I think my space is about up….but here are a few things that made me chuckle this past week or two: I was looking up a certain school on the Internet, a very good private school. On the page about Language Arts, they claimed they taught “grammer” – with an er. I also saw on the internet that a girl wanted to forget about her “sorted” past! I hope the sordid parts were sorted out! And what about those important tenants that you live your life by -- aren’t they the people living in the house you own?
I will close with something true and serious. This is no laughing matter. The word that means “fear of long words” is (are you ready?)
Arlene Miller was a writer and editor for many years (newspapers, books, technical manuals) before becoming an English teacher several years ago. She has a degree in Journalism, a graduate degree (it look seven years!) in Humanities, and a teaching credential. Originally from Boston (Bahston), she has two young adult children, no Boston accent, and lives just a bit north of the Golden Gate Bridge in California. In her former life (until about 8 years ago), she was also a tap dancer.
a recent radio interview with Arlene Miller: