Misplaced Prepositional Phrases


Writers sometimes misplace their prepositional clauses, distorting the meaning of their sentences:

We watched the tree come crashing down with bated breath.

When you see prepositional phrases, evaluate where they're placed in sentences. If a prepositional phrase is placed after a verb, then it should modify that verb. But in this example, the tree cannot have bated breath. We had bated breath. Here are two possible corrections:

With bated breath, we watched the tree come crashing down.
We watched with bated breath as the tree came crashing down.

Here's another dangling prepositional phrase:

Check with the land managers to determine if the desired climb site is closed before your trip.

So, you want to know whether the climb site is closed during the period before your trip? Why would that matter? I think the author means this:

Before your trip, check with the land managers to determine if the desired climb site is closed.

Here's a case where a prepositional phrase tacked onto the end of a sentence causes the reader to assume that the phrase goes with the one before it:

You will learn more about the specifics of what to do before you go in chapter 4.

This one is ambiguous because it seems that before you go in chapter 4 is one phrase meaning before you open chapter 4. But the author actually wants you to hold off on starting your trip, open up chapter 4, read about the specifics, and learn about what to do. Here's a revision that clarifies the progression:

Before you travel, see chapter 4 for specifics on securing a permit.

And remember that danglers aren't limited to prepositional phrases. Dangling participles are even more common. One of my freelancers sent me this note with the subject line "I hope they use tape":

Documentation must be arranged and submitted by the employee attached to the proper transmittal form.

Here's the follow-up comment from the freelancer: "Staples would not be fun."