Using a modifier in the wrong part of a sentence can change its meaning entirely. So how do you make sure your writing is always clear? Check out our guide on.
A modifier is a word or phrase that describes or qualifies another part of a sentence. The most common modifier mistakes are dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.
A dangling modifier occurs when the intended subject (the doer) of the modifier is missing from the sentence, and instead another subject appears in its place.
A misplaced modifier is too far away from the word, phrase or clause it is intended to modify and, as a result, appears to be modifying something else.
Modifiers include descriptive words such as adjectives and adverbs.
Modifiers can also be phrases or clauses that give extra information about a word, phrase or clause.
A dangling modifier is a grammatical error that occurs when the subject of a modifier is missing from the sentence. Dangling modifiers often take the form of an introductory phrase that seems to modify the wrong thing.
In a correct sentence, the subject (or doer) that is modified should immediately follow the comma after the modifier. In the example below, the introductory phrase modifies Jane, the subject of the main clause.
When a sentence does not clearly state the subject being modified, the introductory phrase becomes a dangling modifier. Often this error is a result of a main clause written in the passive voice.
In this sentence, the intended target of the modifier, Jane, is missing. Because a car accident appears where the subject should be, the sentence now suggests that a car accident was driving to work. This is an example of how dangling modifiers can result in nonsensical sentences.
There are two simple ways to fix a dangling modifier.
One method of fixing a dangling modifier is to leave the modifier as it is and rewrite the main clause so that it begins with the subject being modified.
In the example above, the first sentence fails to clarify whose hand was injured – it does not state the subject of the introductory modifier phrase. In the corrected sentence, the subject, John, appears immediately after the modifier phrase.
|Hungry after two hours of hiking, my packed sandwich was quickly devoured upon reaching the peak.||Hungry after two hours of hiking, I quickly devoured my packed sandwich upon reaching the peak.|
|Smiling from ear to ear, the candles are blown out, and the novel concludes happily.||Smiling from ear to ear, the heroine blows out the candles, and the novel concludes happily.|
|To become a practicing dentist, many teeth need cleaning, filling, and filing.||To become a practicing dentist, you must clean, fill, and file many teeth.|
Another method of fixing a dangling modifier is to include the subject in the introductory phrase, leaving the main clause as it is.
In the corrected sentence, the dangling modifier is replaced with a complete clause that clearly states the subject who is doing the action.
|While driving to work, a car accident caused a traffic jam on the highway.||While Jane was driving to work, a car accident caused a traffic jam on the highway.|
|Requiring more data for the study, questionnaires were collected from an additional 200 people.||Because we required more data for the study, questionnaires were collected from an additional 200 people.|
|Taken down to the cellar, the darkness obscured the details of the room.||As he was taken down to the cellar, the darkness obscured the details of the room.|
A misplaced modifier is improperly positioned in relation to the word or phrase it describes. Misplaced modifiers result in sentences that are awkward, confusing, or sometimes downright illogical.
In the example above, 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.
A misplaced modifier can be easily fixed by positioning the modifier immediately before or immediately after the word or phrase that it is modifying.
|Most participants selected a lunch from the menuthat was high in sugar.||Most participants selected a lunchthat was high in sugar from the menu.|
Most participants selected from the menu a lunchthat was high in sugar.
|She arrived home and fell onto the sofacovered in sweat.||Covered in sweat, she arrived home and fell onto the sofa.|
She arrived homecovered 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.|
Adverbs like only, just, almost, nearly, and especially can subtly change the meaning of a sentence depending on where they are placed, often resulting in ambiguity or errors. Pay attention to which word or phrase is being modified to make your sentences as clear as possible.
|For the study, Jane onlyinterviewed Japanese speakers.||Jane only interviewed Japanese speakers and did not take any other action, such as holding focus groups or distributing questionnaires.|
|For the study, Jane interviewed onlyJapanese speakers.||Jane interviewed only people who speak Japanese and not people who speak other languages.|
|Due to the severe concussion, she almostlost all memory of the accident.||She was in danger of completely forgetting the accident.|
|Due to the severe concussion, she lost almostall memory of the accident.||She forgot most, but not all, of the accident.|
Even if a modifier is placed next to the correct part of the sentence, you need to make sure that it isn’t ambiguous. Sometimes a modifier is placed so that it could modify either the words that precede it or the ones that follow it, which makes the meaning of the sentence unclear.
The couple agreed during the family dinner they would announce their engagement.
Did the couple come to the agreement during dinner? Or will they make the announcement during dinner? The positioning of the modifier during the family dinner creates ambiguity.
An ambiguous modifier can be fixed by moving it to another position in the sentence or by rewording to clarify which phrase it is modifying. In many cases, you can use the word that to separate the modifier from the clause that it is not intended to modify.
|The couple agreed during the family dinner they would announce their engagement.||The couple agreed they would announce their engagementduring the family dinner.|
During the family dinner, the couple agreed they would announce their engagement.
The couple agreed thatduring the family dinnerthey would announce their engagement.
|I told John when the seminar was over we should review for the upcoming exam.||When the seminar was over, I told John we should review for the upcoming exam.|
I told John we should revise for the upcoming examwhen the seminar was over.
I told Johnwhen the seminar was overthat we should revise for the upcoming exam.
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A dangling modifier or misplaced modifier is a type of ambiguous grammatical construct whereby a grammatical modifier could be misinterpreted as being.
Each of the following sentences includes a modifying phrase that confuses because it the statement is erroneously constructed or because the phrase is incorrectly located in the sentence. Recast the sentence so that the phrase properly modifies the part of the sentence it refers to.
1. Waiting for the rainstorm to pass through, the day passed slowly.
2. We only drove as far as the state line the first day.
3. To complete the transaction, the check box for the terms of service must be checked.
4. Limping along the sidewalk, I felt sorry for the stray dog.
5. They gave prizes to the top contestants in gift-wrapped boxes.
Original: Waiting for the rainstorm to pass through, the day passed slowly.
Correct : While we waited for the rainstorm to pass through, the day passed slowly.
Alterna.: Waiting for the rainstorm to pass through, we watched the day pass slowly.
The sentence requires — in either the main clause or the dependent clause — reference to one or more participants who are waiting.
Original: We only drove as far as the state line the first day.
Correct : We drove only as far as the state line the first day.
When only precedes the verb, the implication is that only driving, and no other action, occurred, but the meaning is that driving occurred only to a certain point.
Original: To complete the transaction, the check box for the terms of service must be checked.
Correct : To complete the transaction, check the check box to indicate that you agree to the terms of service.
An actor must be specified for the action in the main clause.
Original: Limping along the sidewalk, I felt sorry for the stray dog.
Correct : As I watched the dog limping along the sidewalk, I felt sorry for it.
The sentence construction implies that the person identified as the subject was limping. Depending on the context, this may be true, but more likely, the dog, the subject of the person’s sympathy, is the injured party.
Original: They gave prizes to the top contestants in gift-wrapped boxes.
Correct : They gave prizes in gift-wrapped boxes to the top contestants.
This sentence implies that the prize recipients were wearing, or located in, boxes. The modifying phrase about the prizes should immediately follow the reference to the prizes.
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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:
“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:
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.
“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:
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.
Example: The student passed almost all of her classes.
This sentence means that she passed most of her classes, but not all of them.
The student almost passed all of her classes.
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.
DANGLING AND MISPLACED MODIFIERS. Dangling Modifiers are words or phrases that do not have a clear term to modify in a sentence. Often, they can be .
A construction that from its position seems to modify a word in a sentence that it should not or cannot sensibly modify is a "dangling" modifier.
I borrowed a radio from a friend with a short-wave attachment.
The modifier "a short-wave attachment" refers to the radio not to the friend. It should read:
I borrowed a radio with a short-wave attachemnt from a friend.
You have a certain amount of freedom in deciding where to place your modifiers in a sentence:
However, you must be careful to avoid misplaced modifiers—modifiers that are positioned so that they appear to modify the wrong thing.
In fact, you can improve your writing quite a bit by paying attention to basic problems like misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers.
In general, you should place single-word modifiers near the word or words they modify, especially when a reader might think that they modify something different in the sentence. Consider the following sentence:
Do we understand the Spanish easily, or do the visitors speak it easily? This revision eliminates the confusion:
It is particularly important to be careful about where you put limiting modifiers. These are words like "almost," "hardly," "nearly," "just," "only," "merely," and so on. Many writers regularly misplace these modifiers. You can accidentally change the entire meaning of a sentence if you place these modifiers next to the wrong word:
It is important that you place the modifying phrase or clause as close as possible to the word or words it modifies:
A squinting modifier is an ambiguously placed modifier that can modify either the word before it or the word after it. In other words, it is "squinting" in both directions at the same time:
The infinitive form of the verb consists of the word "to" followed by the base form of the verb: "to be," "to serve," "to chop," etc. Inserting a word or words between the "to" and the verb of an infinitive creates what is known as a split infinitive. Grammarians, who knew Latin grammar better than English, once decreed that a split infinitive was an error, but now it is growing increasingly acceptable even in formal writing. Nevertheless, some many writers still prefer to avoid splitting infinitives altogether.
In general, you should avoid placing long, disruptive modifiers between the "to" and the verb of an infinitive. However, you must use your judgement when it comes to single-word modifiers. Sometimes a sentence becomes awkward if a single-word modifier is placed anywhere but between the elements of the infinitive:
The dangling modifier, a persistent and frequent grammatical problem in writing, is often (though not always) located at the beginning of a sentence. A dangling modifier is usually a phrase or an elliptical clausea dependent clause whose subject and verb are implied rather than expressed—that functions as an adjective but does not modify any specific word in the sentence, or (worse) modifies the wrong word. Consider the following example:
The introductory phrase in the above sentence looks as if it is meant to modify a person or persons, but no one is mentioned in the sentence. Such introductory adjective phrases, because of their position, automatically modify the first noun or pronoun that follows the phrase—in this case, "it." The connection in this case is illogical because "it" was not raised in Nova Scotia. You could revise the sentence in a number of ways:
A dangling modifier can also appear when you place an elliptical clause improperly:
The way this sentence is structured, the clause "Although nearly finished" illogically modifies "we," the pronoun directly following the clause. An easy way to rectify the problem is to re-insert the subject and verb that are understood in the elliptical clause:
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We often use phrases to describe words within sentences, and we determine the meaning of our sentences by placing these descriptive.