Modifiers are words or phrases that dress up otherwise plain sentiments. It’s important for modifiers to stick close to the word or words they’re modifying. When they stray too far, they become misplaced modifiers — and if they get too far, it may look like they’re modifying something else. Take a look at several misplaced modifier examples and how these grammatical errors can lead to reader confusion.
A commonly misplaced modifier is an adverb. Because adverbs modify both verbs and adjectives, these misplaced modifiers often sound correct — but they're not. Check out these examples of misplaced adverbs and see how a quick wording change can clear them up (the modifiers are underlined, and their nouns are in bold).
You'll often find an adverb between the subject and the verb of a sentence. But unless it's modifying the verb, it's a misplaced modifier. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - He nearly drove the car for six hours a day.
- Correction - He drove the car for nearly six hours a day.
The adverb "nearly" is modifying the adjective "six," not the verb "drove." Just put the adverb in front of the adjective it's modifying.
Words that function as both adverbs and adjectives can also be difficult to place. A word like "only," for example, could modify a noun, verb or adjective, depending on where it is in the sentence. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - Only Pastor Johnson gave me $5 to clean all his sidewalks.
- Correction - Pastor Johnson gave me only $5 to clean all his sidewalks.
This sentence makes it sound like only this one pastor, Pastor Johnson, paid $5. In other words, no other pastor paid $5 to clean the sidewalk. The intent is to emphasize that Pastor Johnson only paid a meager amount.
Because adverbs can modify both adjectives and verbs, they are easily misplaced. Read another example of adverbs as misplaced modifiers:
- Misplaced modifier - Iris almost failed every exam she took.
- Correction - Iris failed almost every exam she took.
Moving one word gives these two sentences very different meanings! In the first sentence, "almost" modifies "failed," meaning that Iris barely passed every exam. However, the corrected sentence shows that "almost" actually modifies "every," revealing that Iris failed most of her exams and only passed a few.
Another example of misplaced adverbs comes from using adverbs of frequency. It can be a particular challenge in shorter sentences. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - People who laugh rarely are sad.
- Correction - People who rarely laugh are sad.
This one is especially tricky because the modifier ("rarely") is next to the verb it modifies ("laugh"). However, in the first sentence, "rarely" is also next to the verb "are," making it sound like people who laugh don't become sad. The actual intent of the sentence is to show that people who don't laugh often ("rarely" laugh) have sad personalities. It's a subtle but important distinction.
No matter which type of phrase you use as a modifier, it needs to be next to the noun it's describing. Participial phrases are easy to misplace because they often come at the beginning or end of a sentence, while the word they're modifying might be in the middle of the sentence. Read these misplaced modifier examples featuring participial phrases.
Starting a sentence with a participial phrase is an effective way to vary your sentence structure. However, be sure that your subject comes right after your modifier in these cases. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary's presents were all picked up and admired by Mary many times throughout the day.
- Correction - Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary picked up and admired her presents many times throughout the day.
The first sentence makes it seem as though Mary's presents were eagerly awaiting Mary's birthday. Since presents can't exhibit the emotion of feeling eager, it’s unlikely that this modifier is written correctly. The most logical explanation is that Mary was eagerly awaiting her own birthday. The sentence should be rewritten so the modifier actually modifies Mary.
It's easy to mistake which noun you're modifying with a participial phrase, but it's important to check your meaning. Check out another example of a participial phrase as misplaced modifiers.
- Misplaced modifier - Tired of all of the nights in hotels, delight overcame Mitch when his boss finally said he didn't have to travel anymore.
- Correction - Tired of all of the nights in hotels, Mitch was delighted when his boss finally said he didn't have to travel anymore.
The phrase “tired of all of the nights in hotels” is modifying the noun "delight." Unfortunately, “delight” can't be tired, because delight isn't a person. Instead, it is more likely that “Mitch” is tired. We can correct this sentence by moving the proper subject next to the modifier.
Participial phrases that begin with the participles "named" or "called" can be problematic in a sentence. If you misplace these phrases, you're renaming the wrong noun. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - James bought a horse for his sister called Prince.
- Correction - James bought a horse called Prince for his sister.
Because the phrase "called Prince" comes right after "sister," it sounds like the sister’s name is Prince, which is probably not true. A quick rewording can make it clear that the horse is named Prince, and James purchased it for the sister.
Another common modifying phrase that tends to be misplaced is the prepositional phrase. These misplaced modifiers can make one noun sound like it's in an entirely different (and often strange) location.
Modifiers can function as object complements in a sentence. It's important to know the difference between direct objects and indirect objects when you're using prepositional phrases as object complements. That way, you don't accidentally modify the wrong noun. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates.
- Correction - She served the children sandwiches on paper plates.
Because the indirect object "children" is next to the modifier, a reader may believe that the children were actually on paper plates. "On paper plates" is actually modifying the direct object "sandwiches." All you need to do is move "sandwiches" right before the modifier.
Prepositional phrases can also modify verbs, but only when they're next to those verbs. Otherwise, it looks like they're modifying another word. For example:
- Misplaced modifier - She saw a puppy and a kitten on the way to the store.
- Correction - On the way to the store, she saw a puppy and a kitten.
This sentence might conjure up images of a puppy and a kitten prancing down the street, headed to the local store. What should be stated here is that the woman is walking to the store and, on the way, she saw a puppy and a kitten.
Using passive voice in a sentence can lead to prepositional phrases as misplaced modifiers, especially when they begin with the preposition "by." For example:
- Misplaced modifier - Three offices were reported robbed by the Atlanta police last week.
- Correction - The Atlanta police reported that three offices were robbed last week.
As it reads, the first sentence sounds like the Atlanta police themselves robbed three offices (because "by the Atlanta police" comes right after the participle"robbed," not the verb "reported") However, if you change the passive voice to the active voice, you'll find that "the Atlanta police" is the subject of the sentence, "reported" is the verb, and "that three offices were robbed last week" is a noun phrase functioning as a direct object.
A dangling modifier is similar to a misplaced modifier, but it's a slightly different type of grammatical error. While misplaced modifiers are far from the words they modifiy, dangling modifiers don't modify anything at all — their words are absent, leaving them "dangling." Examples of dangling modifiers include:
- Inspired by all the travel books, Greece is a beautiful place. (Who was inspired?)
- Hoping to earn a free ticket, the train left anyway. (Who hoped to earn a free ticket?)
- Without introducing me, the conversation continued. (Who didn't introduce me?)
You're most likely to see phrases left as dangling modifiers, since it's easier to overlook a disconnection between a phrase and the rest of the sentence. Luckily, correcting dangling modifiers is easy.
Modifiers are one of the most beautiful elements of the English language. They paint our prose and add starlight to our stanzas. Just make sure your modifiers are standing as close as possible to the word or words they’re describing. If you need a little more assistance with these grammatical errors, check out a misplaced and dangling modifiers worksheet that can help you tell the difference. You'll be able to quickly correct misplaced modifiers in no time.