“Tired and broken, the bath felt soothing.”
See what’s wrong with that sentence? No? If not, it’s probably because your mind made sense of what is intrinsically a nonsense sentence. You did the work of the author and his editor. Somehow, that doesn’t seem right.
So, what IS wrong with it?
Technically speaking, the phrase “tired and broken” modifies the nearest noun, which happens to be the “bath.” Having read the rest of the novel, I doubt that the author meant the bath was broken and tired. But I could be wrong, and that is the problem.
It is the job of the writer to communicate clearly and effectively.
This happens all the time. What do I mean by this? It is when an author has a misplaced or dangling modifier. The one above is dangling because the phrase doesn’t have a noun to connect to it.
One of my personal favorites is from a morning news broadcast:.
“She created a memorial to 9/11 online.”
According to the sentence, 9/11 happened online, which, from what I remember, is not the case. It’s easy to fix this misplaced modifier. Just move “online” next to “memorial”—which is where it should be, since it describes what kind of memorial—and voila, the sentence is fixed. I’m willing to bet this error happened because the writer of the broadcast wanted to emphasize the fact that the memorial was online.
“Jane and Louise saw sheep on their way to the museum.”
I’ve seen sheep shut down local traffic, but never go check out the Van Gogh exhibit, which is what the sentence states. Again, it’s an easy fix. The two prepositional phrases, “on their way” and “to the museum” can be moved to before Jane and Louise, unless, of course, the sheep were going to the museum.
It happens so often that we, as readers, tend to overlook them. Here are a few unintentionally hilarious ones courtesy of BKA content.
“Miners refuse to work after death.”
Well, I would hope so, at least not without some serious overtime pay.
That one was obvious. Some aren’t so.
“Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed by the teenager.”
This modifier is really dangling. According to the sentence the deer was driving. It would take more than a simple move of a word or two to fix, but the sentence would be more clear if the writer did.
“The patient was referred to a psychologist with several emotional problems.”
Here, it appears that the therapist needs a therapist.
“Miranda wore a lovely sunhat on her head which was clearly too big.”
Yikes. I wouldn’t say that in front of her.
“We found the address he gave me without difficulty.”
It’s a good thing he didn’t have problems telling them where to go.
When I was teaching, students would often complain that they didn’t see these errors because the sentence didn’t make sense otherwise, or to put it another way, deer don’t drive cars, so the sentence is fine the way it is.
Um, no it isn’t. Here’s why: a writer’s main job is to communicate clearly and effectively. If the reader has to “make sense” of a sentence, the writer didn’t do her (or his) job. Which is why I was so irritated finding the first example in the novel I was reading. Several people had not done their job: the writer, the editor, the proofer. None of them caught this error.
Why does it matter? It matters because errors like this throw the reader out of the narrative. It breaks the spell. That’s never a good thing.
If you would like to learn more or just want a refresher on dangling and misplaced modifiers, there are plenty of places you can go, but my favorite is Grammar Bytes. There, you can find tutorials and online practice for many common writing problems.