Correcting Misplaced Modifiers

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Modifiers are words and phrases that give more detail about a part of a sentence. When the modifier is in the wrong place or 'dangling' (incomplete), confusion can result. This lesson will help you avoid these common mistakes.

What Are Modifiers?

You probably have used the term modifier to refer to an adjective that adds information to a noun. When we add adjectives to nouns, like 'a cute puppy' or 'a fascinating movie,' we tell the reader more about whatever it is we are discussing.

The kind of modifiers that often get misplaced are prepositional phrases, adverbial phrases, and participial phrases, which we'll discuss in more detail below. Or sometimes, the clarity problem results from a part of speech that is missing, such as a noun or pronoun that can serve as the subject.

The best way to recognize and correct misplaced or dangling modifiers is to think carefully about what the speaker is trying to say. If there is any way that a reader could misinterpret the meaning of the sentence, then you need to do something to make it more clear. Let's look at some examples of sentences with modifier problems.

Example One:

'At the age of six, my father took me to his office for the first time.'

This sentence contains a participial phrase, which is meant to modify a subject that is missing from the sentence. The modifier is then dangling, meaning that there's no way to tell from the words themselves exactly who was six years old.

Six Year Old Doctor?
child doctor

Of course, logically the reader assumes that it was the speaker who was a child when visiting the father's office. But since we are trying to make our writing as clear as possible, we need to add a subject to clear up the confusion.

'When I was six years old, my father took me to his office for the first time.'

Example Two:

'A woman passed by, leading a bulldog in a fluffy pink dress.'

In this sentence, the modifier is the prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence: in a fluffy pink dress. As you may have noticed, modifier mistakes often lead to humorous mental images.

In a Fluffy Pink Dress!
bulldog in dress

Of course, this probably is not what the speaker actually saw. It was probably the woman wearing the dress, and not the bulldog. So we can clear up this confusion simply by placing the modifier where it belongs: immediately following the noun it modifies.

'A woman in a fluffy pink dress passed by, leading a bulldog.'

OR

'A woman passed by wearing a fluffy pink dress and leading a bulldog.'

This second option is even better, because it exhibits more readable parallel structure, meaning that both the modifying phrase and the main verb phrase are expressed in the same format.

Example Three:

'Using high-powered binoculars, the lost boy was found on the trail.'

Again, if we really think about the intent of the speaker, we can guess that someone, perhaps park rangers or trail leaders, found a boy who was lost on the trail by using binoculars. However, there is the possibility here that it was the boy using the binoculars.

Who Has Binoculars?
Boy with Binoculars

We can clear up this one by adding a subject to the modifying phrase, like this:

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