“She found a man who was hunting for birds that needed a place to stay.”

This is from a student essay on Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” The information in the sentence is accurate, but the modifier is misplaced—one of the most common errors in the writing of college students, and the source of many of the funniest mental pictures.

In the story, eight-year-old Sylvie is bringing the cow home to her grandmother’s farm from its woods-edge pasture when she meets a young man who has been scouting those woods for birds for his collection (he is an ornithologist, probably amateur; nature study and nature collections were popular in the late 19th century, the time of the story). Too far from town to seek overnight lodging there, and reluctant to leave the area where he has glimpsed a white heron, he asks if he might stay at Sylvie’s home. Her grandmother, happy for the small fee that this would entail and even happier to have someone in her house who reminds her of her own son, consents; Jewett’s story proceeds, beautifully, gently, breathtakingly, from there.

So, the man was hunting for birds, and the man needed a place to stay. Both true. But the many stylistic and conceptual rewards of sentence-combining come with a few risks, and my student has succumbed. Adjectives must abut their nouns or occupy the other end of a seesaw the fulcrum of which is a verb of being. By that rule, “that needed a place to stay” must, in this sentence, modify birds, not man. My student might have squeaked by at least in the clarity game had she used the more appropriate relative pronoun “who” instead of “that,” but for those such as me who think of birds as people, “who” wouldn’t have been much help, especially since the adjective clause still sits in the wrong place. In her sentence, my student has made the birds the shelter-seekers, not the man.

The man, then, must be some sort of tout for a local motel. “Hey, birdie, lookin’ fer a place to stay? Try the Bide-a-Wee, just down the street!” Or else he’s an avitarian bent on gathering homeless birds in anticipation of a cold night: “You can safely come with me, little chick; the night is cold, but the Young Birds’ Christian Association, or YBCA, has beds and a warm mealworm…” I do hope he’s not some kind of bird pimp, luring wanderers into his lair only to force them into unnatural acts for his own enrichment: “Psst! Cold and hungry? I know a good place for you, young tit. I take care of you, you take care of me.”

When you’re a bird that needs a place to stay, you have to hope that any man you meet is hunting you to do you a good turn, not to exploit—or shoot (note that ominous verb “hunting”!)—you. Better to find a bird of your feather who can show you where the hollow logs and leafy nooks are, and let the men look to themselves.

They have a place to stay while they need it…

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““She found a man who was hunting for birds that needed a place to stay.”

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