Misrelated participles or dangling modifiers sound desperately dull, but they pop up all the time, and they sow much confusion. Consider this sentence:
Tiny, velvet-furred and with the cutest twitchy nose, Paul realized the rabbit would make the perfect pet for Jasmine, his little sister.
Reading the first clause (‘Tiny . . . nose’), we make assumptions about what is to come, and then we are dealt a surprise. Although we soon correct our misunderstanding, it can be seen how the misrelated participle causes the reader to stumble.
Here’s a clearer way of expressing it, in which the ‘Tiny . . .’ clause is now properly related:
Paul looked with approval at the rabbit. Tiny, velvet-furred and with the cutest twitchy nose, it would make the perfect pet for Jasmine, his little sister.
And here are more examples, kicking off with a howler from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
- ’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, / A serpent stung me.
- Being a qualified accountant, this type of work is right up my street.
- Boasting a five-screen cinema, a library and a games arcade, you will never be bored at our amazing new mall.
You could argue that these are petty errors, and that the meaning is still clear, and perhaps also that if Shakespeare did it, why can’t we? But there’s still a cognitive hurdle to overcome, and this kind of sloppy writing invites unnecessary criticism.
The playwright Anton Chekhov once (deliberately, to make the character look ill-educated) wrote the line, ‘Approaching the railway station, my hat fell off my head.’