Sentences would be pretty dull without modifiers to provide excitement and intrigue. Thanks to modifiers, words like “the bird” become “the soaring bird.” Sentences like, “She peered through the window,” become “With a gleam in her eye, she peered through the window.”
Modifiers dress up otherwise plain sentiments. However, 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, the further away they get, the more it looks like they’re modifying something else entirely.
Let’s dive right in to some examples of misplaced modifiers and talk about why these examples don’t work.
Example #1: Mary’s Birthday
Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary's presents were all picked up and admired by Mary many times throughout the day.
Here, this 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.
Correction: Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary picked up and admired her presents many times throughout the day.
Example #2: Mitch’s Travel
Tired of all of the nights in hotels, delight overcame by Mitch when his boss finally said he didn't have to travel anymore.
Here, “delight” is being modified by the phrase “tired of all of the nights in hotels.” 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.
Correction: Tired of all of the nights in hotels, Mitch was delighted when his boss finally said he didn't have to travel anymore.
Example #3: Children’s Paper Plates
She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates.
This sentence makes it seem like the children were on paper plates. The goal is to modify the sandwiches.
Correction: She served the children sandwiches on paper plates.
Example #4: An End to His Driving
He nearly drove the car for six hours a day.
This one’s a little bit trickier. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. However, the word order makes the meaning slightly ambiguous or misleading. The intent is to say that he drove for nearly six hours a day. As such, it should be revised to:
Correction: He drove the car for nearly six hours a day.
Example #5: Puppies and Kittens
She saw a puppy and a kitten on the way to the store.
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.
Correction: On the way to the store, she saw a puppy and a kitten.
Example #6: A Measly Five Dollars
Only Pastor Johnson gave me $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. Meanwhile, the intent is to emphasize that Pastor Johnson only paid a meager amount.
Correction: Pastor Johnson gave me only $5 to clean all his sidewalks.
Example #7: Failed Exams
She almost failed every exam she took.
It may be true that this student almost failed every exam. However, what’s meant to be said is that she did, in fact, fail many exams. In the misplaced modifier version, it sounds like the student passed all of her exams, but each individual score was close to a fail. Perhaps she kept getting a 51%. In the corrected version, it sounds like she failed most of her exams and only passed a few. In either version, the outcomes are drastically different.
Correction: She failed almost every exam she took.
Example #8: People Who Laugh
People who laugh rarely are sad.
This is another great example of a misplaced modifier. Is it people who laugh rarely are sad? Or, is it people who rarely laugh become sad? Both may be correct. But, it’s important to be clear about the intent.
Correction: People who rarely laugh are sad.
Example #9: His Sister’s Horse
He bought a horse for his sister called Prince.
This sentence makes it sound like the sister’s name is Prince. That would be… unique. Instead, it should be made clear that the horse is named Prince, and he purchased it for the sister.
Correction: He bought a horse called Prince for his sister.
Example #10: Robbed Offices
Three offices were reported robbed by the Atlanta police last week.
The misplaced modifier here makes it sound like the Atlanta police were the ones performing the robberies themselves. The offices were not “robbed by the Atlanta police.” It is, however, likely someone else reported the robberies to the police. Then, the police might publicize a report on the robberies.
Correction: Last week, the Atlanta police reported that three offices were robbed.
Types of Modifiers
Remember that modifiers usually accompany the thing they’re modifying or stand as close to it as possible. As adjective modifiers, they can stand in front of or behind nouns. Or, they can work with verbs to provide more information. Let’s take a closer look.
Adjectives are typically placed before the words they’re modifying or after the helping verbs. For example:
- The pretty girl
- The girl was pretty.
In the first example, “pretty” is an adjective modifying the noun “girl.” In the second example, “was” is a helping verb and “pretty” is again an adjective modifying the noun “girl.”
Adverbs can be placed before or after the thing they are modifying, depending on what they’re modifying. For example:
- The very pretty girl
- He ran quickly.
In the first example, the adverb “very” is modifying the adjective “pretty,” which in turn is modifying the noun “girl.” In the second example, the adverb “quickly” is modifying the verb “ran.”
Singular Adjectives or Adverbs
When you have a single adjective or adverb, misplaced modifiers rarely occur since they would immediately sound incorrect. However, when an entire phrase is used, misplaced modifiers become more common. Here are a few examples of phrases as modifiers:
- Scared he’d be late for class, Jake ran to school.
- Early in the morning, she rose to work.
- Thanks to Lexi, Mary made it to class on time.
Confusion with a Dangling Modifier
A dangling modifier is akin to a misplaced modifier. It’s related, but a slightly different error.
Take this sentence for example:
Inspired by all the travel books, her mind wandered to a vacation in Greece.
Here, there’s no mention of her mind. The only mention is of her inspiration, which is a separate subject matter. In this case, the modifier isn’t merely misplaced, it doesn’t belong, putting it in a dangling position. Here’s another dangling modifier:
Hoping to earn a free ticket, Mary was disappointed by the day.
The goal may be to say that, since Mary didn’t earn a free ticket, she was disappointed. But, as this sentence stands, it’s rather disjointed, creating another dangling modifier.
Monitor Your Modifiers
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. Otherwise, they may appear to be dressing up another portion of the sentence.
Ready to get loose and wild? How about a massive list of adjective words? Who knows how you’ll incorporate them as modifiers into your next bit of writing? Either way, they’re sure to add more detail, something your readers will love.