A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Misplaced Modifier

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First of all, I have to tell you that I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, all 700-plus pages of it, so much that I know I will read it again. It was that enthralling: an exciting, educational, sad, funny, well-written, captivating book. Second of all, I have to tell you (in case you somehow missed this) that I am a grammar nerd of the first order. So when I came across a second misplaced modifier in this wonderful book, well, how could I let it pass without comment? I always wonder where the editors are who miss these bloopers.

Here is the cast of characters in this example: Popper is a tiny dog belonging to the protagonist, Theo. Boris is Theo’s closest friend, someone he met in middle school. The narrator is Theo:

“Popper—damp, but otherwise looking none the worse for his adventure—stiffened his legs rather formally as Boris set him down on the floor and then paddled over to me, holding his head up so that I might scratch him under the chin.”

Obviously, Popper was the one hoping for a chin scratch, but the way the sentence is constructed, Boris did two things: he put the dog on the floor and then paddled over to Theo to get his chin scratched. How to fix this? The sentence is fine up to the setting-on-the-floor part. It could be rewritten this way: “…stiffened his legs rather formally as he was set down on the floor and then paddled over to me….” You can probably think of other ways to avoid this misplaced modifier.

The rule about modifiers is that you have to ask yourself who did the action and then put that person’s (or in this case, dog’s) name or pronoun immediately following the modifier. I do love them, though. The results are often inadvertently very entertaining.

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Filed under All things having to do with the English language

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