The headline of this post is an example of a misplaced modifier (more specifically, this one is a dangling participle). Misplaced modifiers pop up every day, and even though it’s often clear what the writer meant, they cause a little stumble — and occasionally major confusion — for the reader.
Why it’s wrong: When you “back into” a sentence with a phrase, the information in that phrase goes with the subject of the sentence. So here, the “having started this post” goes with “an idea,” which is not right — it belongs with “me.” Sometimes sentences start with a phrase that doesn’t belong with anything in the sentence, which can really confuse readers.
How to spot one: Anytime you have a sentence that begins with a phrase — an adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase — make sure that phrase goes with the subject.
How to fix it: You may be able to simply move the modifying phrase closer to what it modifies, or you may need to rewrite the sentence. With a dangling participle, it’s often better to change the participial phrase to a subordinate clause, which is what works for the title of this post: “As I started this post, an idea struck me.”
Here are a couple more examples:
Misplaced: Having provided reporters with iPads, the small staff is expected to have every journalism skill there is. (The staff did not provide iPads, it received them.)
Fix: Having been provided with iPads, the small staff is expected to have every journalism skill there is.
Or: Having received iPads, the small staff is expected to have every journalism skill there is.
Misplaced: Caught in Texas, ICE releases immigrants on the streets of Arizona. (ICE wasn’t caught in Texas; the immigrants were.)
Fix: ICE releases immigrants caught in Texas on the streets of Arizona.
What if it’s not at the beginning? Misplaced modifiers can occur anywhere in a sentence, so read carefully to make sure things are in the right order.
Here’s a recent headline:
Gigantic insect lands on James Rodriguez shortly after scoring for Colombia
This makes it sound as if the insect scored for Colombia, when (obviously) it was Rodriguez.
It’s easily fixed: Gigantic insect lands on James Rodriguez shortly after he scores for Colombia
Here’s another example: The 19-year-old, of Abilene, was killed when his pickup left the road and hit a building while it was being chased by Abilene police.
This makes it sound as if the building were being chased, when (obviously) it was the pickup. Again, an easy fix: The 19-year-old Abilene resident was killed when his pickup left the road and hit a building during a police chase.
But these kinds of sentences will either slow readers down, even just for a second, while they figure out the meaning, or make them laugh because they don’t say what was intended. Either way, readers are not focusing on the information.
When we write to convey information, that information needs to be conveyed as clearly and cleanly as possible. Misplaced modifiers muddy a sentence, so check to make sure everything is in its proper place.
(Thanks to Pete for some of these examples!)