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Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 23, 2011

Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Grammar and logic free language from being at the mercy of the tone of voice. Grammar protects us against misunderstanding the sound of an uttered name; logic protects us against what we say having double meaning.

EUGENE ROSENSTOCK HUESSY (1888–1973)

SOCIOLOGIST AND PHILOSOPHER

Dangling, split, and squinting modifiers can wreak havoc on your writing (and maybe even make you laugh). In this lesson, you will learn how to steer clear of these modifying mistakes.

Modifiers enhance a sentence. These enhancers include adjectives and adverbs, as well as phrases and clauses that behave like adjectives and adverbs. Without modifiers, our sentences would be uninteresting and dull. Modifiers can make written and spoken language more interesting and meaningful, and easier to understand.

Sometimes, even though modifiers are helpful, they can become misplaced and confuse the reader or listener. It happens more often than you think.

What do misplaced modifiers look like? Read on to find out.

Dangling Modifiers

Just like adverbs and adjectives, phrases that function like adjectives or adverbs should be put near the words they are modifying to avoid confusion. You want to avoid a dangling modifier.

    Ben's grandpa mowed the lawn wearing a bright red hat.

Who is wearing the bright red hat–Grandpa or the lawn?

A better way to word the sentence would be to move the modifying participial phrase closer to Ben's grandpa, which is the noun it's enhancing.

    Wearing a bright red hat, Ben's grandpa mowed the lawn.

Squinting Modifiers

When a modifier is vague, appearing to describe the nouns on both sides of it, it is called a squinting modifier. For instance:

    Brushing your teeth frequently helps keep cavities away.

Does this mean you should brush your teeth frequently in order to keep cavities away?

    Frequently brushing your teeth helps keep cavities away.

Or does it mean that brushing your teeth can frequently help keep cavities away?

    Frequently, brushing your teeth helps keep cavities away

Split Infinitives

As we learned in Lesson 3, the infinitive form of a verb begins with the word to, for example, to play, to dance, or to study. Inserting a word or phrase between to and the verb creates a split infinitive, disrupting the flow of the sentence.

Incorrect: The team was told to, before the game, warm up by running around the field.
Correct: The team was told to warm up by running around the field before the game.
  OR
  Before the game, the team was told to warm up by running around the field.

Managing Modifiers

Whenever possible, place simple adjectives before the nouns they are modifying.

    Sporting a new football jersey, the excited fan stood in the rain for hours to buy a ticket to the big game.

Place any phrases and clauses acting as adjectives as near as possible to the noun being modified.

    The dog with brown and white spots wagged its tail happily.

Strategically placing limiting modifiers like only, barely, just, and almost can widely vary a sentence's meaning.

Only John plays baseball.         [No one else can play it, only John.]

John only plays baseball.         [He doesn't watch it or read about it; he only plays it.]

John plays baseball only.         [He doesn't watch it or read about it; he only plays it.]

A practice exercise for this concept can be found at Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers Practice Exercise.

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