Misplaced modifiers

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Misplaced Modifiers

Before we delve into this fascinating topic, let's examine regular modifiers. Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that describe (modify) other words or groups of words. 

I love sandy beaches.

only drove to the beach.

Sandy and only are modifiers. Sandy is an adjective modifying the noun beaches. Only is an adverb modifying the verb drove.

I enjoyed the hot dog covered in mustard and relish.

Covered in mustard and relish is a modifier. It is a participial phrase (adjective) modifying the noun hot dog.

Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers are misplaced if they modify words that they are not intended to modify or if their placement conveys an unintended meaning.

The only difference in the following two sentences is the placement of the modifier only, but these sentences have different meanings. 

1. I drove only to the beach.

2. I only drove to the beach.

  • Sentence 1 
  • This sentence is saying that I drove, and the beach was my one destination.
  • Sentence 2

This sentence is somewhat ambiguous. It could be saying that I drove to the beach, and that's all that I did. I didn't watch television or mow the lawn. It could also be saying that I didn't bike or walk to the beach. I only drove.

Common Grammatical Errors: The Misplaced Modifier

The Misplaced Modifier

  • Misplaced and dangling modifiers are phrases that are not located properly in relation to the words they modify.
  • Misplaced modifiers lead to illogical sentences that are difficult to follow.
Misplaced A small book sat on the desk that Sarah had read.
The modifier: “that Sarah had read”
The Problem: This modifier is misplaced because it modifies the desk. It sounds as if Sarah had read the desk.
Corrected: A small book that Sarah had read sat on the desk.

The two common types of modifier grammar errors are misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers.  1.  Misplaced Modifiers

  • The example above is a misplaced modifier.
  • Rewrite the sentence so that you place any modifiers as close as possible to the words, phrases, or clauses they modify.
 Misplaced The professor posted the notes for the students covered in class.
The Problem: The modifier, “covered in class,” appears to modify “the students.” Because the students are not covered in class, this is a misplaced modifier.
Rehabilitated: The professor posted the notes covered in class for the students.

 2.  Dangling Modifiers

  • occur with -ing modifiers
  • Modifiers dangle when they are not logically connected to the main part of the sentence.
    • State the subject right after the dangling modifier, or
    • Add the subject to the dangling phrase.
 Misplaced Walking through the park, the grass tickled my feet.
The Problem: “Walking through the park” seems to modify the grass. However, The grass cannot walk through the park. Therefore, this is a misplaced modifier.
Rehabilitated: The grass tickled my feet as I walked through the park.Walking through the park, I found that the grass tickled my feet.

Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

According to Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell in the sixth edition of Writing First, “A modifier is a word or word group that identifies or describes another word or word group in a sentence.” Modifiers can include the present participle of a verb (-ing) or the past participle of a verb (-ed).

A common mistake when using modifiers is misplacing them, which in turn modifies or describes the wrong word or word group.

Misplaced modifier examples

Incorrect: Crying on the examination table, the doctor gave the small child his vaccine.
This is incorrect because it implies that the doctor was crying on the examination table, when it was the child who was crying.

Correct: The doctor gave the small child crying on the examination table his vaccine.
The modifier now correctly describes the child as crying, not the doctor.

Incorrect: Lydia fed the pigs wearing her raincoat.
Correct: Wearing her raincoat, Lydia fed the pigs.

Incorrect: Dressed in a flowing gown, everyone watched the celebrity enter the room.
Correct: Everyone watched the celebrity, dressed in a flowing gown, enter the room.

Another common mistake when using modifiers is having a dangling modifier. This occurs when the word that is being modified is not actually included in the sentence.

Dangling modifier examples

Incorrect: Using the Pythagorean Theorem, the math problem was easily solved.
Did the math problem use the theorem? Who did?

Correct: Using the Pythagorean Theorem, Wendy easily solved the math problem.
This version is correct because Wendy was the one who used the theorem.

See also:  The arsenic poisoning of napoleon bonaparte

Incorrect: Working through the night, the report was finished in time for class.
Correct: Working through the night, Jeremy finished the report in time for class.

Misplaced Modifiers

A modifier is called misplaced modifier (or separated) when it has been separated in a sentence from the word it modifies. This separation causes confusion, leaving readers unsure what work the word, phrase, or clause is intended to be modified. Misplaced modifiers can be fixed by placing the modifying word/phrase/clause near the word it modifies.

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes, strengthens, or clarifies another word (or group of words) in a sentence. When a modifier is placed in its proper position in a sentence, a sense of clarity is established for the reader.

What is a misplaced modifier?

A modifier may be considered misplaced when it is not in the correct position in the sentence in relation to the word (or words) being modified. Misplaced modifiers can weaken or twist the intended meaning of a sentence, thus creating a sense of ambiguity or absurdity.

Typical placement of modifiers:

  • Place the modifier as close as possible to the word (or words) being modified.
  • Place adjectives that modify nouns in front of the word (or words) being modified.
  • Place adverbs that modify a verb or verb phrase:
    • right before or just after the verb being modified, OR
    • at the beginning or end of the sentence.
  • Place words such as almost, even, just, nearly, only, or simply in front of the word (or words) being modified.
  • Do not create a split infinitive by placing a modifier between to + a verb. (e. g., replace to quickly move with to move quickly)
  • Do not place a modifier between the verb and the object being acted upon. (e. g.

    , replace The dog ate quickly his food with The dog quickly ate his food.)

How can a misplaced modifier be re-placed correctly?

  • Identify the modifiers by circling them.
  • Draw an arrow to the word or words being modified.
  • Move the modifier closer to the word being modified.
  • Read the sentence aloud to check word flow and clarity of meaning.

Let’s look at an example:

Sentence with a misplaced modifier: The kitten took a nap in a padded basket with a collar around its neck.

  • To avoid the absurd implication that the basket has a neck with a collar around it, move the modifying phrase closer to kitten.

Sentence with a properly-placed modifier: The kitten with a collar around its neck took a nap in a padded basket.

Related Concepts

Modifiers

Edit for Unclear Modifiers

Use these strategies to identify and eliminate unclear modifiers–i.e., dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.

Dangling Modifier

Rules for Finding and Fixing Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

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What is a misplaced modifier? • What is a dangling modifier? • How do I fix a misplaced modifier? • How do I fix a dangling modifier?

Understand the problem

Think of modifiers as arrows shot from a bow and the words they describe as bull's-eyes. For clear, logical sentences, writers aim modifiers so that they strike as close to the intended targets as possible.

Sneering with superiority, Roland drank iced tea from a crystal glass that sparkled in the afternoon sun.

Sneering with superiority, a participle phrase, describes Roland, the noun right after it. That sparkled in the afternoon sun, a relative clause, describes glass, the noun in front.

Recognizing Misplaced Modifiers

When a writer's aim is off and too much distance separates the modifier from its target, the result is a misplaced modifier.

Sucking warm water from a rubber hose, envious looks were shot Roland's way as the other picnickers quenched their own thirst.

Sucking warm water from a rubber hose, a participle phrase, should describe picnickers, but since that noun is so far away, the phrase seems to be modifying envious looks, which don't have mouths that can suck water!

Recognizing Dangling Modifiers

If the sentence fails to include a target, the modifier is dangling.

With a sigh of pleasure, consumption of cucumber sandwiches commenced.

We assume that Roland is the one sighing with pleasure and eating cucumber sandwiches, but notice that he's not in the sentence, so we can't tell for sure!

Know the solution

Misplaced and dangling modifiers make sentences awkward and inelegant. They keep sentences from expressing clear, straightforward ideas. When you discover a misplaced or dangling modifier in a sentence, you will need to rearrange and/or revise the sentence parts to untangle the idea the sentence wants to express.

Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

Rearranging sentence parts will often fix a misplaced modifier. Remember that most modifiers come as close to their targets as possible:

Here is the original error:

Sucking warm water from a rubber hose, envious looks were shot Roland's way as the other picnickers quenched their own thirst.

If we move things around, the modifier hits the right target:

Sucking warm water from a rubber hose, the other picnickers quenched their own thirst as they shot envious looks Roland's way.

Now we have picnickers drinking from the rubber hose, which is clear and logical!

Fixing Dangling Modifiers

To fix a dangling modifier, you will need to add a target to the sentence and then tweak the remaining words to make sense.

Here is the original error without a logical target:

With a sigh of pleasure, consumption of cucumber sandwiches commenced.

Notice that the addition of a target makes the sentence clear:

With a sigh of pleasure, Roland began to consume cucumber sandwiches.

After Roland sighed with pleasure, he began to consume cucumber sandwiches.

Now we know who got to eat that delicious snack!

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The Misplaced Modifier

Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that add description to sentences. Typically, you will find a modifier snuggled right next to—either in front of or behind—the word it logically describes. Take the simple, one-word adjective blue. If we add it to the sentence that follows, where should it go?

At a downtown dealership, Kara bought a truck from a salesman with a comb over.

Should we locate blue next to dealership? A blue downtown dealership? A blue Kara? A blue salesman? Of course not! Logic dictates that blue can describe only one word, truck, so we must place the modifier next to that word:

At a downtown dealership, Kara bought a blue truck from a salesman with a comb over.

In a similar manner, multi-word phrases and clauses often go right next to the word they describe. Here are some examples:

Gazing out the window, Paul missed the homework assignment that Prof. Zuromski wrote on the board.

  • Gazing out the window is a participle phrase describing Paul, the noun that follows.
  • Sam gobbled the sandwich, which was soggy with tomato juice, as he rushed to class.
  • Which was soggy with tomato juice is an adjective clause describing sandwich, the noun before it.
  • As the hurricane approached, we watched the tree branches waving in the strong breeze.
  • Waving in the strong breeze is a participle phrase describing branches, the noun in front.

Sometimes a writer places the modifier too far away from the word it should describe. Born in the confusion is a misplaced modifier, an error. Read these examples:

Churning in the Atlantic Ocean, we anxiously watched the weather report for information about the hurricane.

Churning in the Atlantic Ocean is a participle phrase. In the current sentence, it is describing the pronoun we. How illogical! We cannot churn in an ocean!

Raymond wore his one collared shirt to the job interview, which was unfortunately stained with yellow mustard.

Which was unfortunately stained with yellow mustard is an adjective clause. In the sentence above, it is describing interview, the noun in front. But an interview can't get stained with mustard!

Professor Jones, who was late with another essay, waited for the slacker student.

Who was late with another essay is an adjective clause. In this sentence, it is describing Professor Jones, the noun before it. But he's not the identified slacker! The student is!

To fix the error, locate the modifier next to the appropriate word:

  1. We anxiously watched the weather report for information about the hurricane churning in the Atlantic Ocean.
  2. Raymond wore his one collared shirt, which was unfortunately stained with yellow mustard, to the job interview.
  3. Professor Jones waited for the slacker student who was late with another essay.

Dangling & Misplaced Modifiers

A modifier is a phrase or word meant to describe or explain part of a sentence. When modifiers are used correctly, the meaning of the sentence is clear. When modifiers are used incorrectly the meaning of the sentence can change drastically.  Using modifiers correctly will improve the clarity of your work.  Watch out for the two modifier mistakes:

  • Dangling Modifiers
  • Misplaced Modifiers

Dangling Modifiers

“A dangling modifier is a word or word group that refers to (or modifies) a word or phrase that has not been clearly stated in the sentence” (Harris 118).  When a sentence begins with a phrase that is not directly connected to the subject that it refers to, that phrase is “dangling.”  The following are examples of incorrect modifiers and how to correct a dangling modifier:

  • Examples:
  • Incorrect: Driving past The Bread Box Café, the sun peeked through the clouds.
  • This sentence implies that the sun was the “doer of the action”, that the sun was driving past The Break Box Café.
  • Correct: Driving past The Bread Box Café, Suzanne saw the sun peek through the clouds.
  • Incorrect: Having just met the new roommates, it was certain that this year would come down to survival of the fittest.
  • In this sentence the subject “it” takes on the action of “having just met the new roommates.”
  • Correct: Having just met the new roommates, Joey was certain that this year would come down to survival of the fittest.
  • Misplaced Modifiers

“A misplaced modifier is a word or word group placed so far away from what it refers to (or modifies) that the reader may be confused.  Modifiers should be placed as closely as possible to the words they modify in order to keep the meaning clear” (Harris 120).  The following are examples of incorrect modifiers and how to correct a misplaced modifier:

Examples:

Incorrect: The Girl Scouts went wild when they were told that they had raised one million dollars by selling cookies at the troop meeting.

The way this sentence is written means that during the troop meeting the Girl Scouts raised one million dollars.  However, “at the troop meeting” should actually refer to where “they were told.”

Correct:  The Girl Scouts went wild when they were told at the troop meeting that they had raised one million dollars by selling cookies.

Misplaced modifiers can also be just one word.  These are some of the frequently misplaced one-word modifiers: almost, even, hardly, just merely, nearly, only (Harris 121).  Changing the location of these individual words changes the meaning of the sentence.

  1. Example: The student passed almost all of her classes.
  2. This sentence means that she passed most of her classes, but not all of them.
  3. The student almost passed all of her classes.
  4. This sentence means that she came close to passing all of her classes but didn’t actually pass any of them.

As you work on avoiding dangling and misplaced modifiers, you might want to have a peer tutor read over your essays.  If they mention that a sentence is unclear or awkward, check for a dangling or misplaced modifier.

Misplaced Modifiers and How to Fix Them (with Examples)

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes another part of a sentence. A misplaced modifier is improperly positioned in relation to the word, phrase or clause it is supposed to describe.

Neil Armstrong made history as the first man to step on the moon in 1969.

In this example, due to the placement of the modifier in 1969, the sentence seems to say that Neil Armstrong was the first man in that particular year to step on the moon.

Instead, the modifier should be placed directly next to the clause it relates to – Neil Armstrong made history:

  • In 1969 Neil Armstrong made history as the first man to step on the moon.
  • Neil Armstrong made history in 1969 as the first man to step on the moon.

How to fix a misplaced modifier

A misplaced modifier can be easily fixed by positioning the modifier immediately before or immediately after the word or phrase that it is modifying.

The waiter presented a steak to the guest that was medium rare. The waiter presented a medium-rare steak to the guest.The waiter presented a steak that was medium rare to the guest.
Most participants selected a lunch from the menu that was high in sugar. Most participants selected a lunch that was high in sugar from the menu.Most participants selected from the menu a lunch that was high in sugar.
She arrived home and fell onto the sofa covered in sweat. Covered in sweat, she arrived home and fell onto the sofa.She arrived home covered in sweat and fell onto the sofa.
Despite receiving widespread critical acclaim, box office sales of the film were poor. Despite receiving widespread critical acclaim, the film performed poorly at the box office.

Adverb placement

Adverbs

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