I took my first creative writing class this summer. Four, fun-packed weeks of staring at the same fourteen people for four hours at a whack… You know, I never noticed it until writing this post but the number 4 does seem to be uncharacteristically high profile. I wonder of that’s significant in some obscure cosmological, numerological, psychological, pathological way? Meh, probably not.
Anyway, a funny thing that kept coming up in this creative writing class was misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. Argh! I always thought that the tendency to give creative birth to those madcap pranksters of the written language had been driven out of the average student during high school English.
I remember my high school English teacher and it was her fervent desire and life goal that no misplaced modifier or dangling participle ever reared its belled harlequin head from between the pale blue lines of college ruled. That lady had a desk drawer dedicated to a collection of red pens and sharpies. Let me tell you what, she wasn’t shy about using them.
I’m betting she has ascended to superhero status by now. Picture Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series with a teacher version of Batman’s tool belt around her waist and reinforced gauntlets to protect her from paper cuts and carpal tunnel. The half-moon reading glasses perched on the end of her nose has a built in plagiarizing checker. Be afraid, be very afraid… She is ‘The English Teacher.’
What are Misplaced Modifiers and Dangling Participles?
It is, according to the dictionary, “… a participle or participial phrase, often found at the beginning of a sentence, that appears from its position to modify an element of the sentence other than the one it was intended to modify.”
What the heck? Right? I can telepathically sense some people’s eyes glazing over as I type. So, to put it simply, a misplaced modifier or dangling participle is a word or phrase that’s in the wrong place for what it is describing.
This can often lead to confusing and funny mistakes. There were several people in class that seem to have had a special knack for producing these things. What was even funnier in a sort of sad, pathetic kind of way was that they couldn’t or wouldn’t see what they were doing. Since it’s often easier to learn by seeing examples, here are some of the misplaced modifiers and dangling participles I saw in class.
This one is an actual sentence from class:
The bicycles were reported stolen by Mr. Avery, the high school math teacher.
That’s one rough school! The sentence should be something more like this:
Mr. Avery, the high school math teacher, reported the bicycles stolen.
Here’s another example from class:
Slowly sliding down the slick pole, the drunks watched the exotic dancer.
Eww… Yeah, this class had a lot of varied interests and no, we didn’t all sit around wondering to ourselves if the person writing the stories about exotic dancers was maybe writing from experience. Some people are just gifted with the use of description, right? How about changing the sentence to something like this:
The drunks watched the exotic dancer slowly sliding down the slick pole.
Here’s another one from the same story:
Wearing a barely there sparkly G-string and pasties, the man couldn’t take his eyes off me all night.
Wow…talking about switching roles! Usually, it’s the dancers that are wearing the teeny tiny outfits.
There were a lot more instances over the duration of the course and a lot of laughs and red faces. This is what I figured out: The best thing a writer can do to keep from embarrassing themselves is to read their work out loud before ever letting someone else even peek at it. It’s great to be humorous but only if that’s what you’re going for. After all, you’d hate to write a story with one of these sentences:
The principal handed out diplomas to graduates wrapped in protective plastic.
If you want a more in depth article about this topic, visit Raya’s Dungeon for her article on Mutilating Modifiers and Damaging Dirty Dangling Participles. She explains it quite eloquently.
Do you have any funny stories about misplaced modifiers and dangling participles?