The Naked Writer: Misplaced Modifiers

Boy do I see these quite a bit—even in advertisements in print. OK, I was reading a cat story last night—one of those where you have to click forever. (I’m a sucker.) Then I came to: “Rescued at last, BenBen’s life was about to change forever.” Ah, here’s an example of a misplaced modifier I can use for that blog piece!

“Rescued at last, BenBen’s life was about to change forever.”

The cat’s life wasn’t rescued. The cat was rescued.

That’s a misplaced modifier, also sometimes known as a “dangling participle.”

“Rescued” is a verb turned into an adjective, so we call it a participle or a modifier—either term will do. Often a participle is thought of as a verb turned into an adjective with an “ing,” but not all participles are formed with an “ing.”

“Rescuing the cat, John took BenBen to the vet.” (That’s not the greatest sentence ever, but it’s an appropriate use of the participle “rescuing.”)

Yes, I do see these goofs all the time. And they’re slippery. I will sometimes write a misplaced modifier myself, only to come back later and catch the bad boy.

How to avoid these somewhat elusive mistakes? Like everything else in writing, we have to bring such goofs to our attention. We have to proofread carefully. Does the modifier in this case explain what we know it is intended to clarify?

We can fix a misplaced modifier in one of two ways. We can place the modified element in with the participle:

“With BenBen rescued at last, his life was about to change forever.” The modifier now appropriately modifies BenBen.

Or, we can change the second part of the sentence to move the modified element into place.

“Rescued at last, BenBen knew his life was about to change forever.” The appropriate noun is again modified. I just don’t, personally, want to imply that the cat knows his life is about to change. Well, he might suspect it.

Any questions?

Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit, or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Hurry, as Writing the Mystery is up next—the third edition of my award winning instructional of the same name should be out right about now. Or download The Naked Writer at Amazon. I have fiction available for download on Smashwords and at Amazon as well, including a YA for girls (The Heroine’s Journey) and an upper middle grade fantasy with a boy protagonist (Strings). These two novels are available in paperback. Or for some post-apocalyptic fun—Question Woman and Howling Sky is in ebook and paperback and audio formats.

The Naked Writer: Misplaced Modifiers

The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

A mistake students and clients make that surprises me a lot is the failure to know (or research) which words should be put together as a single word—or which supposedly single word is actually two words. Why should this amaze me? Because the dictionary is right here online and/or a simple search engine search can (most often) make the usage clear.

But I guess, to take a step back, what really catches me off guard is that the student or client doesn’t suspect that the two words might be taken as one or that the single word might possibly be broken in two.

Sometimes, yes, I know the answer. We write “online” and not “on line.” We write “ashcan” and not “ash can.” These are completely logical. How about wastepaper? Well, I just wrote it and spellcheck liked it, so I know I can leave it that way. On the other hand, it doesn’t like the word “spellcheck.” So let me go look that up. I do so by first performing a search. Universally, what I come up with for search results are spell check (one spell-check). Okay, I’ll concede. I’ll use two words. But the reader will never know I had the use wrong to begin with.

So the process goes. I look up everything if I’m at all likely to make a mistake. I don’t want to make a mistake. I want to have the right usage. So, my question is why my students and clients don’t look up the word or words. That’s part of the job of being a writer. And if I forget which the correct use is and come across the word again and again? You know what? I look it up every time. Because I can and I don’t even have to pick up a physical dictionary. Though if I think the physical dictionary has an older word I know is proper usage, I’ll pick it up and thumb my way to the page where the word should be.

And here’s the OneLook Dictionary if that will help: . Yes, they spell that as one word: OneLook.

Oh, no, I just stumbled across this in a client’s manuscript: Hood winking… Means, I suppose, a winking hood.

Here are some I’ve seen recently:
bar tender
heart beat
home town
gate keeper
back pack
half way

And much, much more. Please remember, I don’t know all the answers, but I look up everything I’m suspicious of and also if the spell checker flags the word and I think I’m right. Sometimes I am.
Have you downloaded my Kindle stylebook, The Naked Writer? Have you taken a class with me at Writer’s Digest University? I always have classes coming up and I know I can help you become a better writer. I have a 12-week novel workshop starting 12/7 and an 11/30 Fundamentals of Fiction. Or read a novel or two of mine, such as Question Woman & Howling Sky: . Post a comment if you want to contact me here.

The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie

These are two different verbs. I once actually heard an editor say if she saw an author had confused the verbs, she would reject the manuscript. She had a point. 🙂 I tell students to either find out how the verbs are used or don’t use them. But of course the two are important verbs, and writers want to use them where necessary.

The distinction between the two words is a simple one: Lay, meaning to place something, is a transitive verb—which like all transitive verbs takes an object. Lay the napkins on the table (you wouldn’t say lie the napkins on the table, would you?). Lie, meaning to stretch out, is an intransitive verb (never mind the vocabulary) and never takes an object.

We would “lie down”—no object. We wouldn’t “lay down.”

The misuse of the verb form signals a bit of educational class warfare, explaining the above editor’s prejudice.

Let’s go to the past tense.

I lay (rested) there for quite some time then I remembered I had to lay (place) the napkins on the table.

So the past tense of lie (recline)—lay—is the same word as the present tense of the word for “to place”—lay.

That would seem to be confusing, but only if you don’t have the declension of the verbs in your head.

We don’t say I laid down and I laid there for quite a while. The word “laid” belongs to the verb to lay. (This is one I see a lot.) “I lay down, and I lay there quite a while” would be correct.

I also see “I was laying there,” also incorrect. I was lying there.

Because this is a bit confusing for some, I took this chart from Writer’s Digest (I teach there, so take a class with me at

Lay vs. Lie Chart

Infinitive          Present   Past    Past Participle    Present Participle

to lay (place)     lay(s)      laid        laid                  laying
to lie (rest)       lie(s)       lay          lain                  lying

I ask him to lay the silverware on the table. After he had laid the knives there and after he laid the spoons there, he lays the forks there. Soon, he is laying the plates on the table as well.

Meanwhile I decide to lie down. I lie on the floor. I lay there for quite a while until I had lain for too long. I was lying in the same position all that time.

Of course we do have another verb “to lie,” which means to tell an untruth. The past tense and the past participle of that verb is “lied.”

We’re clear on all this now, right? If not, do as I suggest my students do—if you don’t understand how to use these two quite different verbs, avoid them. Of course the better choice is to learn the difference. Good luck.


You can download my style guide The Naked Writer at Or buy one of my novels in print (or ebooks) there—a middle grade fantasy, Strings; a YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey; and an adult science-fiction fantasy, Question Woman & Howling Sky. Contact me at if you need an edit.

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie