What Are Misplaced Modifiers and Dangling Modifiers?

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  • 0:13 Modifiers
  • 1:18 Misplaced Modifiers
  • 2:38 Dangling Modifiers
  • 3:49 In Real Life
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Curley
I have this recurring nightmare where all my modifiers are misplaced or dangling and everybody's laughing at me. Don't let this happen to you! Learn why modifiers are important and why putting them in the right place is even more so.

What is a Modifier?

When you're writing, you're the king of your kingdom, but your kingdom is an island. All those clues that you give and receive in everyday conversation are gone, so all of the information a person gets to understand what you're trying to get across has to be there on the page, and it has to be ordered in a way that makes sense. You can create any kind of argument or reality that you want on the page, but it's your responsibility to make the reader understand you, or your thoughts and feelings won't have their intended effect. One way you can better ensure that your thoughts and feelings make sense and have their intended effects is to recognize dangling and misplaced modifiers.

So, what's a modifier? A modifier is a word, phrase or clause that modifies (or describes) another word. So, an adjective or an adverb are modifiers because they change the meaning or add detail to another word or words -- as in 'the tin man and the cowardly lion.' Tin and cowardly are both adjectives and modifiers. But this is English! So it's going to get a lot trickier than that, but also funnier.

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers: A misplaced modifier, like it sounds, is a modifier that finds itself in the wrong part of the sentence. Take this:

The fisherman left his live sack of bait on the dock.

Live is the adjective modifier here, and it's misplaced because it's modifying the word sack, implying that the sack is alive. The intended meaning is for the bait to be live. So, the correct fix would be:

The fisherman left his sack of live bait on the dock.

Now, take this misplaced adverb modifier:

We ran from the hideous mutants we saw quickly.

So, the modifier here is quickly, but it's in the wrong location. As it's written, it says that you saw the mutants quickly, not the speed with which you're running from them. To fix this modifier, put the adverb back where it makes the most sense:

We ran quickly from the hideous mutants we saw.

Likewise, entire phrases can be misplaced, creating confusion. Take this:

The gunslinger emptied onto the dusty ground the shells from his revolver.

As written, it seems like the gunslinger, rather than coolly emptying his spent shells onto the ground is instead emptying himself onto the ground. Put the modifying phrase in the right place to make him a hero again:

The gunslinger emptied the shells from his revolver onto the dusty ground.

Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers: Your teachers in the past may have accused you of writing them from time-to-time; mine certainly have. A dangling modifier is just like a misplaced modifier except that the thing it's supposed to modify is missing! The modifier sits alone, modifying nothing, dangling its feet off the edge of a cliff.

Don't leave it hanging! Here's an example:

Dreaming of the future, the possibilities were limitless.

Well, that sounds really nice, but who's dreaming here? Someone? Everyone? We don't know, hence the modifier 'dangles.'

Sentences with dangling modifiers often start with a gerund verb (ING word), preposition or descriptive phrase. Even professional writers do it once in a while (though they certainly don't mean to).

Take this example from the New York Times Magazine:

If elected, Obama's main opposition will not come from Republicans.

If elected is the modifying phrase here, but again, it appears unclear what it's modifying. Is Obama's main opposition getting elected? Clearly, the writer meant Obama. Here's the simple fix:

If Obama is elected, his main opposition will not come from the Republicans.

In Real Life

In real life, not all examples of misplaced or dangling modifiers will be simple. Always ask yourself: Is the meaning of the sentence completely clear? This can be tricky because when people speak, they often make these kinds of modifier errors, and human brains are so good at picking up and understanding language that we can continue a conversation just as easily as if the error hadn't been made at all. Most of people's frustration with learning the nuts and bolts of composition and grammar comes from this process.

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