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Misplaced Modifiers Help

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Updated on Sep 1, 2011

Misplaced Modifiers

When you write, you transfer what you are thinking—what you want to say—onto paper for someone else to read. You use modifiers to describe words or make their meanings more specific. You know what you mean to say, but your message can become unclear if you have misplaced modifiers: phrases or clauses that slip into the wrong place in your sentences.

There is a simple way to prevent your modifiers from becoming misplaced: Keep them as close as possible to the words they modify.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier does just that: It dangles, and doesn't seem to modify any word in particular.

Examples:

After burning dinner, Russell opened the door in his pajamas to let the smoke out.

After burning dinner in his pajamas, Russell opened the door to let the smoke out.

Both sentences make it sound as though Russell cooked dinner inside his pajamas, burned the dinner, and opened the door to air out his pajamas.

This error is easily corrected by placing the prepositional phrase in his pajamas closer to the word it is modifying (Russell), and placing the adverb phrase after burning dinner later in the sentence.

Corrected:

In his pajamas, Russell opened the door after burning dinner to let the smoke out.

Russell, in his pajamas, opened the door to let the smoke out after he burned dinner.

Squinting Modifiers

A squinting modifier is one that's ambiguous because of its placement—it seems to describe something on either side of it.

Example:

Ryan's teacher, Ms. Bennett, told him when he completed his test to pass out some papers for her.

Did Ms. Bennett tell Ryan she wanted him to complete his test before passing out some papers for her? Or had Ryan already finished his test when Ms. Bennett told him to help her pass out papers?

Corrected:

When he completed his test, Ryan's teacher, Ms. Bennett, asked him to pass out some papers.

Ryan's teacher, Ms. Bennett, told him he could pass out some papers once he completed his test.

Split Infinitives

Infinitives are to verbs, and modifiers do not belong between the two words.

    Incorrect: My mom told me to never lie.
    Corrected: My mom told me never to lie.

Disruptive Modifiers

When a modifying clause is improperly placed within a sentence, it disrupts the flow of the words.

Example:

I will not tolerate, just because you're the star, your disrespectful outbursts.

Corrected:

I will not tolerate your disrespectful outbursts just because you're the star.

Managing Your Modifiers

Here are a few rules to help you place modifiers correctly in a sentence.

Rule 1. Place simple adjectives before the nouns they modify.

Example:

Wearing a green raincoat, the exhausted student walked home in the rain.

Rule 2. Place adjective phrases and adjective clauses after the nouns being modified.

Example:

The surfer with long blond hair rode the ten-foot wave with ease.

Rule 3. Place only, barely, just, and almost before the noun or verb being modified. Their placement determines the message in your sentence.

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