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Dangling, Squinting, Messed Up Modifiers

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Dangling or misplaced modifiers are one of those grammar issues that most writers have heard of, but may not understand. But if you ever watched Letterman’s segment (or was it Leno?) in which he read amusing, poorly worded headlines, you’ve probably seen plenty of them.

Modifiers

Let’s take a look at regular, non-danglin’ modifiers first. These are words or phrases that, um, modify something. Imagine that! Grammar Girl points out that “almost” is a modifier that, depending on where you place it in a sentence, can change the whole meaning.

She almost finished every book she started.

She finished almost every book she started.

Not the same thing, eh? Good thing we're writers and we obsessively scrutinize each and every sentence we write, choosing and placing each word with absolute purpose.

Look at it, just hanging there

Dangling modifiers commit the crime of describing something that isn’t mentioned in your sentence, so they sound (often to amusing effect) like you’re describing something else.

Walking into the bar, the vodka called to me.

Do you picture a bottle of vodka walking into a bar and calling your name? A better way to phrase this would be to specify who walked into the bar.

I walked into the bar and the vodka called to me.

Alone, that mistake seems obvious. But when you're having one of those 2k+ writing sessions, those darn danglers can really sneak in there. Line editing is a great time to check and correct these guys.

Get it some bifocals

Squinting modifiers are tricky little things. These are modifiers placed in a sentence between two words or phrases it could modify, and the reader doesn’t know which you mean.

Writers who drink often are successful.

So frequent drinking makes a writer successful? Or drinking makes a writer successful frequently? All this squinting has made me thirsty – pass the vodka.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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3 comments:

  1. I've always been a fan of what I consider "clean" writing; and by that I mean straightforward non-wordy. I like the type of writing that doesn't get in the way of the story. Now that I'm learning more about craft (and re-learning my grade school English lessons) I realize what MAKES writing like that. This is a good example.

    I think the mistake a lot of us newbies make is to try and sound like what we think a writer should. It takes skill to pare down those words to a simple form that leaves room for the story.

    Thanks for the post! (And it was Leno with the headlines, although I *heart* Dave)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks. Those little rodents are easy to miss.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great point about trying to sound like we think we should, Steph!

    And doh! (re: Leno) :)

    ReplyDelete

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Item Reviewed: Dangling, Squinting, Messed Up Modifiers Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman