Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers Explained with Examples
- Grammar Lessons >
- Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
Overview of Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers:
- Introduction to Modifiers
- What Is a Modifier?
- Examples of Modifiers in Sentences
- What Are Misplaced Modifiers?
- Examples of Misplaced Modifiers
- What Are Dangling Modifiers?
- Examples of Dangling Modifiers
- How to Fix a Dangling Modifier
- Name the Doer as the Subject of the Main Clause
- Change the Phrase into a Subordinate Clause
To be able to instantly and correctly use a large variety of modifiers is a covetous skill that English students strive to achieve mastery in. For example, an adorable, playful dog is never the same as a dog. Similarly, the man who was sporting bushy hair is very different from the man with lots of hair. The presence of modifiers can make a piece of writing far more appealing and captivating.
Let’s explain the power of modifiers with the help of an example.
Jason’s poem was worth publishing.
Now, take a look at the below version of the same example:
A brilliant and imaginative student, Jason wrote an amazing poem, which thanks to its great imagery and fine meter, not only became an instant hit among the literature aficionados at the school but also enhanced Jason’s status as a budding poet whose work was considered publishable by many.
It’s obvious that the second sentence is far more impressive and engaging. It has used a great range of vivid modifiers, so the reader or the listener finds it arresting.
The concept of a modifier is very broad in grammar. Both adjectives and adverbs can be modifiers. Adjective clauses and adverbial clauses can also function as modifiers in a sentence. Functions of a modifier include describing, qualifying, or clarifying a word or words in the sentence while adding details to it.
Janice is an adamant environmentalist. (The modifier "adamant environmentalist" describes Janice.)
Shane was both prepared and passionate, so he made it to the finals. (The modifier "prepared and passionate" adds details to Shane.)
Delighted that spring was finally there, Mom ordered for some new songs. (The modifier "delighted that spring was finally there" describes Mom.)
Aunt Sara served us sandwiches on paper plates. (The modifier "on papers plates" adds details to served.)
To pass the test, Sam had to burn the candle at both ends. (The modifier "to pass the test" adds details to had to burn the candle at both ends.)
My sister Terry, who is turning 20 this summer, is a basketball player. (The modifier "who is turning 20 this summer" describes Terry.)
Although a modifier helps add color and vibrancy to a sentence, it can cause serious problems in communication when not correctly used – rather not appropriately placed. It’s important that a modifier stays close to the word or words it describes or adds details to. A misplaced modifier is a modifier put in the wrong place. Most of the time, it happens when a modifier is placed too far from the word or words it seeks to describe or modify.
Maya nearly spent all day trying to solve the puzzle. (Incorrect).
The misplaced modifier in this sentence is nearly. It appears to modify the verb spent, which is not what the writer wants to do. The problem is we can’t nearly spend something; we either spend it or don’t spend it at all. Now take a look at the below version of the sentence:
Maya spent nearly all day trying to solve the puzzle. (Correct)
The meaning is clear as it says Maya spent nearly every hour of the day trying to figure out the answer to the problem.
Bradley only speaks French; nobody else in the class does. (Incorrect)
The word "only" is the misplaced modifier here. The impression that the sentence leaves is Bradley only speaks and doesn’t write or read French, which reading the rest of the sentence it’s clear is not the case.
Only Bradley speaks French; nobody else in the class does. (Correct)
This time, the sentence has the modifier "only" correctly placed next to the word it modifies – Bradley. So it clearly expresses the meaning that it was originally expected to.
Only Bradley speaks French; he can’t read or write it. (Incorrect)
Once again, we have a sentence that has its modifier placed very far from the word it intends to describe. The modifier "only" is not where it should be.
Bradley only speaks French; he can’t read or write it. (Correct)
With the modifier in the right place, the sentence is now easy to understand. Bradley can only speak French, and he cannot read or write it. In other words, Bradley’s ability in the language is limited to speaking and doesn’t include reading or writing.
The Bells returned the mobile to the store that didn’t work. (Incorrect)
In yet another instance of clear misplacement of a modifier, we have the adjective clause "that didn’t work" placed too far from the word it is expected to modify. We know that it’s not the store that is not working here, but it’s the mobile that the writer says the Bells returned as it was not working.
The Bells returned the mobile that didn’t work to the store. (Correct)
The modifier "that didn’t work" is now placed close to the word it modifies –mobile. So, we have no problem understanding the meaning.
The verb "dangle" means to hang or swing loosely. A dangling modifier is a modifier that adds details to a word not clearly stated in a sentence. It just dangles – swings loosely – there. The problem is many English language users speak or write sentences with dangling modifiers unintentionally. To closely check who does the action is the key here, which we will now discuss in detail.
Having finished dinner, a game of tag was started. (Incorrect)
Who eats dinner: the game of tag or the people? The game never eats food, does it? It's the people who do. The sentence is constructed in such a way that the reader – the reader who knows a dangling modifier – can't help laughing at its unintended humor.
Having finished dinner, we started a game of tag. (Correct)
Now that the subject – we – is clearly stated, there is no confusion. In other words, the sentence means we had dinner and then played a game of tag.
Back from a day of tiring work, sitting on the couch was very comfortable. (Incorrect)
The sentence makes no sense as it's not clear who is back from work. It looks as though the couch had gone working and is now back home.
Back from a day of tiring work, Dad found sitting on the couch very comfortable. (Correct)
The modifier “back from work” is no longer dangling as it’s clearly stated who is back from work – Dad.
Dad had a tiring day at work. When he came back home, he sat on the couch, which he found very comfortable.
Although a dangling modifier is something that affects the clarity of a sentence, students need not trip up. There are a few ways to correct it.
A dangling modifier occurs when the sentence contains no word that the idea in the modifier can be attributed to. So an instant solution is to write the word or words that denote the real doer of the action in the modifier phrase as the subject of the main clause.
Sitting in the fast-moving train, the things outside were moving rapidly in the opposite direction.
The action in the modifier phrase "sitting in the fast-moving train" is "sitting". Who is sitting? According to this sentence, it’s the things outside that are sitting, which we know is not the case. Now, read the sentence through and figure out who might be actually sitting. There must be someone who is sitting although it is not stated in the sentence. Try correcting the sentence as follows:
Sitting in the fast-moving train, we found the things outside moving rapidly in the opposite direction.
The main clause now clearly states the real doer – we – who did the action in the modifier phrase, which is “sitting in the fast-moving train”.
Often the source of confusion is the introductory phrase that contains the dangling modifier. So by converting this phrase into a subordinate/dependent clause, the issue can be addressed. Now the sentence will become a complex sentence where the first clause – the subordinate clause – will name the doer of the action as a part of it.
While taking a shower, the soap fell on the floor. (Incorrect)
Who was taking a shower? According to this sentence, it is the soap that is taking the shower, which we know is not true. Now try correcting the sentence by applying the second technique in it. Convert the introductory phrase "while taking a shower" into a subordinate clause. Remember although a subordinate clause is not a complete sentence, it still has a subject and verb. Take a look at the below sentence:
While Benjamin was taking a shower, the soap fell on the floor. (Correct)
The newly introduced dependent clause "while Benjamin was taking a shower", which originally was "while taking a shower", a phrase, helps solve the problem. The sentence now doesn’t contain a dangling modifier.