Misplaced modifiers

Because modifiers provide detail and clarification, they are the darlings of the scientific writing world. We've already noted how scientists stack them and fill them with jargon. Scientists also place them in strange locations that cause ambiguity and unintentionally shift their meaning. Whether they are single words or entire phrases, most modifiers function as adjectives or adverbs. To correct a misplaced modifier, simply move it as close as possible to the word it modifies.

Unclear: The researcher tested the women observing this schedule. [Who observed the schedule, the researcher or the women?]

Better: Observing this schedule, the researcher tested the women.

Dangling participles

Phrases that do not clearly and logically refer to the correct noun or pronoun are called dangling modifiers. A modifier is said to "dangle" when its implied subject is not the subject of the main clause of the sentence.

Though various parts of speech can dangle, participles are the undisputed champions. Many dangling participles are misleading, confusing, or unintentionally ludicrous.

Being in poor condition, we were unable to save the animals.

Lying over the heart, you will discern a large growth.

Most participles end in -ing, -en, or -ed. Examine the text for words with these endings. Those most apt to cause problems usually appear at the beginning (less commonly, the end) of the sentence as an introductory phrase. To correct a dangling participle, either rewrite the sentence so that the subjects agree or turn the phrase into a dependent clause with an explicit subject.

Dangling: While having the committee meeting next door, the spec-trophotometer exploded.

Subjects agree: While having the committee meeting next door, we heard the spectrophotometer explode.

Dependent clause: While we were having the committee meeting next door, the spectrophotometer exploded.

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