Monday, March 26, 2018

Misplaced Any Modifiers Lately?

First, please accept this disclaimer: I am not trying to criticize the writer of the book I describe below. That is why I am not including the title of the book or the author's name or even the characters' real names. I simply wish to make the point that this shouldn't be happening, and to encourage writers (and editors!) to take steps to prevent it. I suppose you could argue that "the average reader" won't notice or doesn't care. But some of us do notice and will care. And it's so easy to fix!

The mystery novel I'm currently reading is loaded with misplaced modifiers. It's distracting and causes me to stop in the middle of reading and think, "What?" (Authors: You don't want to do that to your readers, do you?)

All four examples below occur in the first 300 pages (the first 1/8 of the book, if you like). To me, this constitutes more than an occasional misstep. It's a pattern, a habit. And no, it is not the writer's "style." Please.

Below each example, I have made a few notes and supplied a simple "fix" for the error.

(1) "Twice her age, with two sons and a successful vasectomy, Mary was the closest thing he'd ever have to a daughter."

This was the first one I saw that stopped me in my tracks. It reads as if "Mary" has "two sons and a successful vasectomy." Major "what?!?!" factor.

The FixHe was twice her age, with two sons and a successful vasectomy. She was the closest thing he'd ever have to a daughter.

(2) "Quiet and still in the dawn hours, she took twenty minutes to survey the center of town..."

She may be "quiet and still" herself, but the sentence clearly intends to refer to the town. The reader has to think about it to get that, however.

The Fix: The town was quiet and still in the dawn hours. She took twenty minutes to survey...

(3) "An avid runner and study junkie, Bill knew Mary was either snaking through campus with headphones dangling from her ears or already at the library with her hair in a ponytail..."

This reads as if the male character is "an avid runner and study junkie," which (as it turns out) the reader knows he is not. The reference is to the female character, but you have to take a moment to figure that out.

The Fix: Bill knew that Mary was an avid runner and study junkie. She was either snaking through campus...

(4) "Typically a morning jogger, the four-mile path along the beach in Miami was a common route she took a few times each week."

The "four-mile path" apparently is "typically a morning jogger." Again, what?!?!

The Fix: Typically a morning jogger, [female character name] took the four-mile path along the beach in Miami a few times a week.

So stay safe out there, writers, and please please please don't misplace your modifiers!

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