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What Is a Misplaced Modifier?

What is a modifier? And what is a misplaced modifier? Do you know? Do you even think that you need to know?

Many writers who have read a great deal over the years will simply know what sounds right and makes sense, and will generally not need to think too hard about where they should put their modifiers. However, there are others who may not know what a misplaced modifier is, and may not realize when they are committing this grammatical faux pas—whether in writing or in speaking.

But even if you are one of those folks who writes very well despite the fact that you can’t point out or define a misplaced modifier, it’s good for all of us to review these concepts. Knowing the mechanics can help even the best writers avoid embarrassing mistakes.

What Is a Modifier?

A modifier is a word that modifies something! Now that’s pretty simple to remember.

As we all know, a sentence needs a noun and a verb to be complete. But if every sentence were simply nouns and verbs, our language would be outrageously boring! Think of nouns and verbs as the “bare bones” or skeleton of our writing.

Modifiers are the meat. They make writing interesting. They help us to develop our stories in ways that draw the reader in and help them to experience what we are describing. Modifiers are descriptors that fill out our writing, make it engaging and interesting, and are therefore extremely important.

Modifiers can be words, or they can be phrases. They modify—or give us more information about—other words or phrases in a sentence.

What Is a Misplaced Modifier?

Misplaced modifiers cause confusion. You see, a modifier should be put as close to the word or phrase that it is modifying as possible.

A misplaced modifier is one that is in the wrong place within the sentence. It is not close enough to the word it’s supposed to modify, so it causes confusion (and sometimes very funny sentences).

Examples:

    I watched the bulls charge through my binoculars.
    (Bulls that charge through binoculars would give one quite a headache.)

    After the kids left their rooms, I cleaned them.
    (What was cleaned? The kids, or the rooms?)

    They walked into the tavern and ordered a drink that was dirty and filled with cockroaches.
    (I wouldn’t drink that if I were you!)

Do you see how a misplaced modifier can change the whole meaning of a sentence? They are good for a chuckle—but not for good writing!

Types of Misplaced Modifiers

Now that we’ve had a snicker or two, let’s move on to some rules that will help you avoid these pitfalls. There are a few different types of misplaced modifiers. Some are easier to spot than others, which means they can be tricky for even the best writers.

Limiting Modifiers

These are words that limit things—as their name suggests. Examples are:

  • hardly
  • merely
  • only
  • nearly
  • just
  • almost

It is very important that these types of modifiers are positioned directly before the word that they modify. This is a common mistake so you need to be on the lookout for it.

One of the reasons misplaced limiting modifiers are so hard to spot is because people get away with them all the time when speaking. Don’t do it in your writing. You need to make sure the sentence cannot be misinterpreted!

Let’s look at a very simple sentence that shows the importance of placing modifiers directly before the thing they are modifying.

    Only Cheryl eats grapes.

This means that Cheryl is the only person who eats grapes.

    Cheryl only eats grapes.

The modifier only is modifying eats. This means that Cheryl only does one thing with grapes: She eats them. She doesn’t squish them into wine, she doesn’t throw them at people. She only eats them.

    Cheryl eats only grapes.

The modifier only is modifying the noun grapes. This means that Cheryl eats nothing else but grapes.

Do you see how misplaced modifiers can completely change the meaning of the sentence? This is particularly true for “only”—but does apply to all limiting modifiers.

Examples:

  1. Tanya knows nearly everyone at the party.
  2. Tanya nearly knows everyone at the party.
  3. Tanya knows everyone nearly at the party.

Interpretations:

  1. The first example is probably what the writer meant. Nearly modifies everyone at the party, and explains that Tanya knows most of them.
  2. Nearly knows suggests that Tanya barely knows each person at the party, as opposed to knowing them well.
  3. Nearly at the party suggests that Tanya knows the people who nearly made it to the party. This is a specific group of people: those who nearly made it, but didn’t quite succeed.

Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers are words or phrases that explain another word or phrase. But, they appear in the wrong sequence in the sentence, thereby causing confusion. Or maybe another chuckle.

    After completing the chores, Melissa turned on the TV.

    After completing the chores, the TV was turned on.

Who is the “doer” in these sentences? In the first sentence, we can clearly see that it is Melissa who both finished her chores and turned on the TV. But in the second sentence, did the chores turn on the TV? Logic says no, but the sentence says yes!

You see, in the second sentence, the subject noun (Melissa) is missing. BUT, it is the subject noun that is doing all the action in the sentence. So the modifying phrase is said to be dangling out there, with nothing to modify.

    Hoping to gain back the use of his legs, exercises were done every day.

Here is a more complex sentence, where it is easier to miss that a modifier is misplaced. Who or what is the subject of this sentence? You might latch onto “his” as the subject. However, “his” is actually a part of the modifier Hoping to gain back the use of his legs.

So if “his” is part of the modifier, it cannot be the subject of the sentence—as it cannot be used to modify itself! So again, who is the subject of the sentence?

There is none. And therein lies the problem. With no subject noun to modify, this is a dangling modifier. A correct version of this sentence might read:

    Hoping to gain back the use of his legs, Jeremy exercised them every day.

You see? Always be sure that you don’t leave your modifiers hanging. Give them something to describe!

Squinting Modifiers

These are modifiers that can either describe the words before or after them. The sentence may technically make sense, but your readers could get confused because there is a better way to do it.

Example:

    Reading three pages a day quickly enhances your writing proficiency.

Hmmm… Here the reader may see two different things entirely because quickly could be modifying two different things: reading three pages a day quickly or quickly enhances your writing.

It really could be either! So if you are the writer and you want to avoid confusion, you must rearrange the sentence.

    Reading three pages a day, you can quickly enhance your writing proficiency.

Here, it is clear that quickly modifies the word enhance.

    Quickly reading three pages a day can enhance your writing proficiency.

Here, we see that quickly modifies the word reading.

In these two sentences, the modifier quickly is simply repositioned to make it clear which word it is modifying. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that your modifier is not in the middle of two things that it could be modifying.

Final Thoughts on Misplaced Modifiers

Now that you’ve made it this far, why not check out our other grammar topics on the subject, like coordinating conjunctions? And of course, be sure to check out Magoosh’s Professional Writing lessons!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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