Misplaced Modifiers — SAT Grammar Fundamentals

What Are Misplaced Modifiers?

The SAT has always loved to test this concept. There is a clear logical reasoning behind the correct answer, yet many disregard this in their everyday speech. When “what sounds right” and “what is actually right” conflict, you can bet the SAT is waiting there with a carefully engineered question to trap the unwary. In this post, we’ll review what you need to know about them as you work on SAT grammar rules.

So take a look at the following sentences: is anything wrong?

Studying for finals and playing high school sports, it is hard for many to find time.

Living for seven months in Madrid, Martha’s fluency in Spanish increased rapidly.

Not so sure? Well, what about the following examples?

Running down the street, a bicycle hit him.

Flipping through channels, the television suddenly turned off.

Something weird is clearly going on. Was the bicycle running down the street? Was a television sitting on a couch and eating Doritos while flipping through channels?

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To avoid such absurd scenarios, we have to make sure that when we have a phrase beginning with an –ing verb (called a participle) that the phrase, which ends right before the comma, accurately describe the subject that comes right after the comma.

Running down the street, he had to jump out of the way of an oncoming bicycle.

Flipping through channels, Dexter threw his hands up in frustration when the television suddenly turned off.

Now let’s go back to those first two examples. Can you think of ways to improve those sentences? Give it a shot. Makes sure the “–ing phrase” correctly modifies the subject, as the examples below show.

Studying for finals and playing high school sports, many students find it hard to focus on anything else.

Living for seven months in Madrid, Martha became fluent in Spanish.

Modification is basically a fancy way of saying “describing” and you can think of the “-ing phrase” as a large adjective that should logically (don’t forget the Doritos-eating television) describe the subject.

Sometimes, though, modification comes after the subject.

John sat on the couch eating Doritos and watching a blank screen.

John sat on the couch, eating Doritos and watching a blank screen.

One of these sentences implies that the couch eats Doritos (which isn’t too absurd if you look under some couches). The other is correct because it describes (correctly) John eating the Doritos and watching a blank screen.

The correct sentence uses a comma to separate the phrase, “John sat on the couch” from the phrase that says “eating Doritos…”. When the “ing phrase” comes after the comma, the action in that phrase should always describe the subject of the sentence. In this case, John is that subject of the subject.

On the other hand if you don’t have a comma separating the “-ing phrase” from the rest of the sentence, then that phrase must logically describe the noun that comes immediately before it. In the first sentence (the one without the comma) there is no comma separating “couch” and “eating”. Therefore, that sentence implies (incorrectly) that the couch is eating Doritos and watching a blank screen.


Misplaced Modifiers Mini-Quiz

Students multitask everyday, indeed many times a day, students believe they are very adept at juggling two or three different activities while studying for a midterm. Though he may well be able to learn while multitasking, it is not nearly as efficient as focusing only on studying. Yet many students continue to pass up an optimal studying environment preferring to multitask at every opportunity.


    B) To multitask
    C) Students multitasking
    D) Multitasking


    B) environment; preferring
    C) environment, preferring
    D) environment, they prefer


Answers and explanation

  1. As is, this sentence has two subjects (“students” and “students”). Since students is already the subject of the clause beginning “students believe…”, it is easy to add a dependent clause, specifically an “-ing phrase” and voila! We have a valid sentence. Answer: D). C) is wrong because it also repeats the subject, “students”.
  1. As is, the sentence implies that the environment prefers to multitask. By putting a comma between “environment” and “preferring”, the sentence is correctly structured to indicate that “preferring” refers to the subject, “many students”. Answer: C).


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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!

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