The ever-popular misplaced modifier!
Walking to school in the rain, my hair was soaked.
Looking up from the base, the mountain seemed like a difficult one to climb.
Answering the door, Dave surprised the UPS man wearing nothing but wife’s his underwear.
Misplaced (sometimes called “dangling” modifiers) are groups of words that are meant to describe or modify a noun, but the placement of those words makes the meaning unclear (and often funny). Like the also ever-popular pronoun referent problem (we’ll get to that in a minute) the problem with the misplaced modifier is that the noun is either unclear or too far away from the phrase to make sense.
In the first sentence, “Walking to school in the rain“ is actually modifying “my hair“ when, really, it should be modifying ME; my hair, after all, wasn’t doing the walking. There are a couple of ways to rework the sentence to make sense; I would probably write “Walking to school in the rain, I knew it wouldn’t be long before my hair would be soaked through.”
In the second sentence, the noun is unclear. We know that the mountain isn’t doing the looking up, so adding more to the sentence – “we thought,“ perhaps – turns the structure into a perfectly lovely “Looking up from the base, we thought the mountain seemed like a difficult one to climb.“
In the last sentence, we’re not sure exactly who is wearing the underwear. I’d rewrite the sentence to read “Dave surprised the UPS man by answering the door wearing nothing but his wife’s underwear,“
This brings us to pronoun reference. I can’t tell you how many times I see things like this:
Kathy told Sarah that her baby was cute. Whose baby is cute; Kathy’s or Sarah’s?
Chris told his father that he was too old to join the Cub Scouts. Who is too old to join; Chris or his dad?
After putting a new radio in the car, Sam sold it. What did Sam sell; the radio or the car?
Some of these kinds of sentences require a prety hefty rewrite to make them clear, others are a bit easier. The first one could be reworked to say “Kathy told Sarah, ‘your baby is cute.'” The second (which I think is hysterical) needs quotation marks, too, I think: “Chris said ‘Dad! You’re too old to join the Cub Scouts!'” The last one is a bit easier: “Sam sold the car after putting a new radio in it.”
Happy Wednesday, Everyone!