Eating a Hot Dog, an Orca Jumped Out of the Water and Surprised Me, Or: The Tale of a Misplaced Modifier

Hot-dog eating orcas are elusive creatures that sometimes only appear when writers create them unintentionally. In the title above, I’m probably the one eating the hot dog when an orca suddenly jumps out of the water. (In real life, this has never happened to me, but I do hope to see an orca someday “in the wild.”) However, the sentence I’ve originally created for my title makes it sound like the orca is eating a hot dog. As a result, readers will think my sentence is strange or laughable.

Yet, is this kind of mistake the worst “sin” a writer can commit? Definitely not. Grammar and spelling mistakes happen and most writing instructors believe that larger issues such as thesis statements, using sources correctly, organizing paragraphs effectively, and communicating new or important ideas take precedence over things like commas and semicolons. Only after a draft is completed and revised a few times, should writers concern themselves with sentence-level issues.

As a writer, I typically follow the practice of looking over larger issues first and then diligently correcting smaller grammar problems, but even writers make mistakes and I definitely made one just recently in my DIY blog, “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.” The mistake I made falls along the lines of the “misplaced modifier” that might make the meaning of a sentence silly or ridiculous. So, without further ado, I present to you the title I used in my blog: “Spritzing with Lavender and Awards.” Luckily, my blog is humorous in nature so, if readers found the title funny, they might have thought I did it on purpose, but the truth is, I just slapped a title onto my blog post after I finished writing. Then, I hit “publish.”

In my post, “Spritzing with Lavender and Awards,” I explain a recent trip to Friday Harbor to splurge on lavender-infused products after some kind and talented bloggers nominated me for blogging awards. (Letting loose in a lavender store is how I “roll” when I win awards nominations, apparently.) The lavender-infused product I buy, in the post’s description, is a “spritz” bottle of distilled water and lavender, which can be used for cleaning the house. In envisioning this post, I wanted to combine 1) a DIY cleaning project that used the lavender water and 2) the answers to the questions that came along with the awards nominations. In choosing the title for the piece, I shoved these two ideas together into one place, but they just didn’t quite work out. After encountering my title, readers would probably have the following questions:

1) Who or what is “spritzing” with lavender and awards?

2) How do awards “spritz?”

3) Who or what is being spritzed?

I should have written the following headline instead: “Spritzing the House with Lavender-Infused Water to Celebrate Blog Awards Nominations.” However, I didn’t. I could correct the error now, but then when I hit “update,” my hundreds of followers would get the same article again in their mailboxes, which could be annoying. So, I guess I’d rather be “wrong” in this case, than annoying. And, I’ll have plenty of opportunities to write less nonsensical titles and posts in the future.

With more formal writing though, I have a few tricks that I use to help ensure that I don’t make these kinds of mistakes, but I only employ them after I’ve tackled the thesis statement, arguments, sources, topic sentences, and overall organization:

1) Read the paper out loud slowly. When reading the paper out loud, I stop after each sentence and ask myself, “What is the main idea I’m trying to get across? What is the simplest way to get that message across?” If I see words I can cut, I do it. If I see sentences that contain too many ideas or adjectives or clauses that describe other parts of my sentence, I break them apart. Then, I re-examine the sentence to make sure it makes sense logically.

2) Let the paper sit. Typically, I try to draft papers or more formal projects early so that I can look at them again and again with “fresh eyes” in order to spot things I didn’t notice before.

3) Temporarily enlarge the print and imagine that my document will be posted publically to a billboard. This method helps highlight any sentences or phrases that might have glaring and/or embarrassing errors. Sometimes seeing my work “in the light of day,” so to speak, helps me notice the things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I certainly wish I had employed this method with my “Spritzing with Lavender and Awards” title for my blog. Interestingly though, the minute I hit “publish,” I realized my mistake. Perhaps copying and pasting the entire piece over into a Word document and enlarging the print could have simulated the “publishing” moment that would have helped me catch the confusing nature of my title.

With writing though, even the most “perfect” documents that don’t carry any grammar errors or “mistakes” can still be improved, changed, and edited. Writing can be a way of documenting or making something “permanent,” but it’s also a way to enter into a conversation with readers who interpret and respond to the words we place before them. In that sense, the acts of writing and reading are fluid, dynamic, and ever changing. Hot dogs and orcas, after all, are only variables whose placement depends on the effect the writer wants to create: laughter or a sense of wonder.

For more help with finding and fixing grammar or mechanical errors in writing, I’m happy to lend a hand. Contact me here:


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