Word people love to have fun with misplaced modifiers. The most recognized of these are dangling participles, where a phrase loses touch with its object, creating “howlers” like “Walking south, the Chelsea Piers seem to vanish in the mist.” Obviously, the Chelsea Piers were not walking south.
Not all misplaced modifiers are danglers, though. Some are just phrases that have lost their way, ending up in the wrong part of a sentence. They’re part of the “garden path” sentence problems we discussed recently, but a very specific part.
For the most part, they are very easy to direct to the right place. But while they’re lost, they can be pretty funny, or confusing.
Here’s a relatively easy one to show what we mean:
The front lobby was decorated with large photos of grinning African children that Helen took on her trips to Rwanda and Tanzania.
What did Helen take on her trips? Did she take children, or pictures of children? And if she “took” pictures of children, did she pack pictures she had previously taken, or did she photograph children while she was on her trips?
The word “took” is the clue to the problem, and to the solution:
The front lobby was decorated with large photos of grinning African children that Helen photographed on her trips to Rwanda and Tanzania.
(If the “echo” of “photos” and “photographed” bothers you, you could say “pictures” or “portraits” instead of “photos.”)
Here’s another one:
He criticized them for taking pictures of his 10-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair at her home.
The phrase “at her home” seems to modify the phrase “his 10-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair,” which means the daughter was having the affair at her home. Not likely, at that age. “At her home” really modifies where the daughter was when the photos of her were taken. It’s just a hair off. Instead, have it say:
He criticized them for going to the home of his 10-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair to take her picture.
He explained why he pulled his 9-millimeter pistol out of his glove box and fired 10 bullets at a car occupied by four teenagers who prosecutors say were unarmed. Three of those bullets struck 17-year-old Clarence Williams, who died at the scene after an afternoon spent at the mall.
That last sentence creates a false sequence, saying the victim was shot, spent an afternoon at the mall, then returned to the scene of the shooting and died. The afternoon at the mall had nothing to do with the teen’s death, and so does not belong in the same sentence. If it belongs in this passage at all, this fix is a bit more complicated:
He explained why he pulled his 9-millimeter pistol out of his glove box and fired 10 bullets at a car occupied by four teenagers, who prosecutors say were unarmed and had spent the afternoon at the mall. Three of those bullets struck 17-year-old Clarence Williams, who died at the scene.
Look for words like “after,” “from,” “of,” and other prepositions. They are often the culprit, bringing with them phrases that are just in the wrong place.
One last one:
A renowned child psychologist and author said today that studies indicate young children spend more time watching TV than sleeping during a speech to state educators.
If you don’t know why that’s wrong, you’ve probably slept through too many speeches to state educators.
Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.