November 06, 2007

#01-034: Funny Mistakes - Part I: Misplaced Modifiers

a Photoshop image of an older man in jail with a sign reading "The Governor"
"After ten years in prison, the
governor pardoned the criminal."

Note: Sometimes poor grammar isn't just wrong, it's downright hilarious! These problems with the placement of modifiers are good examples.

Get Ready: Can you spot the difference between a misplaced modifier and a dangling participle? (Hint: look for the -ing word!)

Some foreigners find "Chinglish" signs amusing.

In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing made an all-out effort to eliminate sub-standard English from road signs, restaurant menus, and other public places. Shenzhen, too, where I lived at the time, made great strides in its scheme to bring public English up to international standards.

But even in English-speaking countries, people make common mistakes that can often lead to amusing results. The misplaced modifier and the dangling participle are two of the most common culprits.

  • Misplaced modifier: an adverb or adjective (or an adverbial or adjectival phrase) too far from the word being modified: "My mother told me I would have gray hair when I was ten." No one has gray hair at ten years old! The adverbial phrase "when I was ten" tells when my mother told me, not when I would have gray hair. Better: "My mother told me when I was ten that I would have gray hair."
  • Dangling participle: a participial phrase (for example, with a verb using -ing) too far from the noun it modifies, or, as in this example, with no modified noun (or pronoun) at all: "Walking into the room, the dinner table looked beautiful." The table was walking into the room? Better: "As I walked into the room, the dinner table looked beautiful," or, "Walking into the room, I saw the beautiful dinner table." Participial phrases should be just before or just after the noun they modify.
Find more funny mistakes in Part II.

See the "Practice" below for more examples.


Read more:

Practice: Here are some examples of misplaced modifiers. How can you correct the sentences? See the "Explanations" below to find out what makes them funny.

  1. The company created a new toy for children made of plastic.
  2. After ten years in prison, the governor pardoned the criminal.
  3. After trying several keys, the door finally opened. 
  4. The telephone rang while cooking my dinner.
  5. We saw several monkeys on vacation in Mexico.
Answers are in the first comment below.

Explanation of "What's Funny": After you check your answers in the first comment below, read on to find out what makes these examples funny.

  1. It sounds like the children are made of plastic.
  2. It sounds like the governor was in prison for ten years.
  3. It sounds like the door tried several keys.
  4. It sounds like the telephone was cooking my dinner.
  5. It sounds like the monkeys were on vacation.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 6, 2007

The parts of this lesson received 3251 visits on my old site between January, 2012, and June, 2021.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice:
    1. "The company created a new plastic toy for children."
    2. "After ten years in prison, the criminal was pardoned by the governor" or "The governor pardoned the criminal after he had served ten years in prison."
    3. "After trying several keys, I finally opened the door" or "After I tried several keys, the door finally opened."
    4. "The telephone rang while I was cooking my dinner."
    5. "While on vacation in Mexico, we saw several monkeys" or "We saw several monkeys while we were on vacation in Mexico."