Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

What Is a Modifier?

Modifier is a word, a phrase, or a dependent clause functioning either as an adjective or as an adverb.

Modifiers are like teenagers: they fall in love with whatever they're next to. Make sure they're next to something they ought to modify!

Modifiers describe words and phrases. Whether they are:
They must be clearly linked to what they modify.

Linking a modifier to the wrong word or phrase in a sentence changes the meaning.


Observe and compare the following expressions:

Modifier Placement and Associated Meaning

Sentence I Meaning
  • Kyle was the one person to order cornflakes.
Sentence II Meaning
  • Kyle ordered cornflakes and nothing else.
Sentence III Meaning
  • Kyle ordered cornflakes at breakfast but not at other meals.

The issue of the proper placement of only has long been argued among grammarians. Many careful writers will insist that only be placed immediately before the word or phrase it modifies. Thus:

Would be rewritten as:

  • “I gave him only three dollars.”

Some grammarians have argued that such precision is not really necessary, that there is no danger of misreading:

And that only can safely and naturally be placed between the subject and the verb. The argument has been going on for two hundred years (and still counting).

If modifiers are not clearly linked to what they modify, sentences become ambiguous and confusing:
  • She wore a ribbon in her hair, which was red.
    [What was red? The ribbon or her hair?]
  • The waiter served ice cream to the wedding guests covered in chocolate sauce.
    [What was covered in chocolate sauce? The wedding guests or the ice cream?]

To write effectively and state your ideas clearly, avoid dangling and misplaced modifiers.

Repositioning Misplaced Modifiers

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or dependent clause that has not been linked or positioned directly before or after the word it is intended to modify.

What this means—is that, the modifier has not been placed in the appropriate position in the sentence.

Hence, the modifier ends up modifying a different word in the sentence (the word directly preceding or following the modifier), and the resultant effect, is a weakened sentence—one that does not convey the meaning the writer had intended to express.

To correct a sentence with a misplaced modifier, one can either:

Preventing Misplaced Modifiers

Pay careful attention to limiting modifiers because they are subtle, and the potential confusion associated with them often escapes notice.

Limiting modifies (such as almost, even, exactly, hardly, just, merely, nearly, *only, scarcely, and simply) modify the word or words that immediately follow them.


Notice how changing the position of the modifier changes the meaning of the following sentences:

Confusion
  • He barely kicked that ball twenty yards.
    [what does it mean to “barely kick” something?]
Revised
  • He kicked that ball barely twenty yards.
Confusion
  • We just found one victim.
    [meaning: We found a victim just now.]
Revised
  • We found just one victim.
    [meaning: We found only one victim.]
Observe also the following expressions:

Confusion
  • To help his family in the middle of the night Antonio flew home.
    [Did Antonio want to help his family in the middle of the night?]
Revised
  • To help his family, Antonio flew home in the middle of the night.
Confusion
  • She spoke about global warming in Chicago before a panel of scientists.
    [Is global warming occurring only in Chicago?]
Revised
  • In Chicago, she spoke about global warming before a panel of scientists.

Dealing with Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a modifier attached to the beginning or end of a sentence that is not clearly linked to what it is supposed to describe.

Preventing Dangling Modifiers

When you begin a sentence Opens in new window with a modifying word, phraseOpens in new window, or clauseOpens in new window, you must make sure the next thing that comes along can, in fact, be modified by that modifier.

When a modifier inappropriately modifies something, it is called a dangling modifier. This often happens with beginning participial phrases, making dangling participles an all too common phenomenon.

In the sentence below, we can't have a car changing its own oil.

Confusion
  • Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, the car seemed to run better.
Revised
  • Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, Fred found he could get much better gas mileage.

A participial phrase Opens in new window followed by an expletive construction will often be a dangling participle — but the expletive construction is probably not a good idea anyway.

This faulty sentence can be remedied by changing the participial phrase Opens in new window into a full–fledged clause with a subject and verb Opens in new window.

Confusion
  • Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, there is an easy way to keep your car running smoothly.
Revised
  • If we change the oil every 3,000 miles, we can keep our car running smoothly.

A participial phrase Opens in new window followed by a passive verb Opens in new window is also apt to be a dangler because the real actor of the sentence will be disguised.

Confusion
  • Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, the car was kept in excellent condition.
Revised
  • Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, we kept the car in excellent condition.

An infinitive phrase Opens in new window can also dangle. The infinitive phrase Opens in new window below should probably modify the person(s) who set up the exercise program.

Confusion
  • To keep the young recruits interested in getting in shape, an exercise program was set up for the summer months.
Revised
  • To keep the young recruits interested in getting in shape, the coaching staff set up an exercise program for the summer months.

Squinting Modifiers

A third problem in modifier placement is described as a squinting modifier.

This is an unfortunate result of an adverb's ability to pop up almost anywhere in a sentence; structurally, the adverb may function fine, but its meaning can be obscure or ambiguous.

For instance, in the sentence below, do the students seek advice frequently or can they frequently improve their grades by seeking advice?

You can't tell from that sentence because the adverb often is squinting (you can't tell which way it's looking).

Let's try placing the adverb elsewhere.

Confusion
  • Students who seek their instructors' advice often can improve their grades.
Revised I
  • Student who often seek their instructors' advice can improve their grades.
Revised II
  • Students who seek their instructors' advice can often improve their grades.