When I read that sentence, I laughed out loud. Why? The geldings aren’t talking, the groom and his manservant are.
A misplaced modifier is removed from its target. What does that mean? The noun that the phrase modifies is far enough away to cause confusion. The sentence in question begins with a collective noun “a groom and his manservant” then continues with a “pair of geldings.” The last thing you read before the modifying phrase is the word “geldings” so it’s perfectly normal to assume that talking refers to geldings. But as far as I know, geldings don’t talk. I wish they did, but until they do, the sentence needs some help.
There’s also something called a dangling modifier. This occurs when the subject of the sentence isn’t properly identified.
Here’s an example. With a heavy breath, his arms wrapped around his legs in despair.
The heavy breath signals emotion, which is explained at the end of the sentence with the word despair. So that seems fine. But the problem is that arms don’t breathe. The person does. And the person isn’t identified.
How do you fix misplaced and dangling modifiers? With a little sentence reconstruction. Think of the phrases as puzzle pieces and play with rearranging them.
For a misplaced modifier, you want the phrase close to the target noun.
A groom and his manservant [target] stood at the head of a handsome pair of geldings, talking and stamping their feet in the cold [modifying phrase].
Talking and stamping their feet in the cold, a groom and his manservant stood at the head of a handsome pair of geldings.
For a dangling modifier, you want to make sure you identify the subject.
With a heavy breath [modifying phrase], his [subject, whoever it is] arms wrapped around his legs in despair.
With a heavy breath, David wrapped his arms around his legs in despair.
The moral of the story: keep your nouns close and your subjects named. In other words, your phrases need to modify the nouns that are closest to them and the subject of your sentence needs to be clear.
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