About Misplaced Modifiers

misplaced modifiers

About Misplaced Modifiers

A common stylistic issue I come across while editing is misplaced modifiers. In short, a misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is separated from the word it modifies, causing awkwardness or confusion. Misplaced modifiers can also change the meaning of a sentence or be totally illogical. In this post, I analyze some examples of poorly placed modifiers and discuss the best practice for using modifiers.

What’s a Modifier? 

Before we get too deep into this discussion, I should define what a “modifier” is. When I speak of a modifier, I refer to an adjective, appositive, phrase, or clause that modifies a word. Here’s an example of a modifier—in this case an adjective—in action:

The boy rode his blue bike.

Blue is the modifier, and it modifies the noun bike. Here’s a more complex example involving a subordinating clause:

The boy rode his bike, which he got for Christmas.

In this case, the modifier of bike is “which he got for Christmas.”

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are common in all forms of writing. Both new and experienced authors create them. Sometimes, they seem harmless:

Janet looked at me, surprised.

In this example, the modifier is surprised. It modifies Janet, but its placement at the end of the sentence, away from Janet, causes the sentence to read awkwardly. (“Awkwardness” is the result of confusing or unclear sentence structure or word choice, but a complete discussion requires an entire post.) Most readers probably won’t be confused. However, there’s the risk that they will misinterpret the sentence and assume that me is surprised. Here’s a similar example:

The sound rang in my ears, high-pitched and loud.

This sentence is clear enough, and few readers are likely to misinterpret “high-pitched and loud” as modifying ears. Still, the sentence sure does read awkwardly because the important information, in this case the modifier, isn’t placed to maximize its effectiveness.

Here’s a more dangerous example:

On the wall, Mark grabbed his keys.

In this example, I mean to say that Mark’s keys are on the wall. Because of the misplaced modifier, however, it sounds like Mark is on the wall.

Authors often misplace participle phrases involving gerunds:

Spitting venom, I grabbed the cobra by the neck.

am not spitting venom in this case, but the placement of the modifier suggests that I am.

As much as they are annoying and a chief source of awkward prose, misplaced modifiers are pretty funny. When I worked as a writing instructor at a university, my favorite way to teach misplaced modifiers was through ridiculous examples. A quick Google search of “funny misplaced modifiers” turns up a treasure trove of gems. Here’s one of my favorites from comedian Groucho Marx:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

Obviously, the modifier “in my pajamas” refers to I, not elephant. This kind of mistake may seem obvious, but it’s more common than you’d think.

The Solution: Place Modifiers Next to the Words They Modify

This tip is one of the easiest ways to instantly improve the readability and clarity of your prose. Simply putting modifiers next to the words that they modify makes an enormous difference in your writing. Let’s correct some of the examples of misplaced modifiers from above:

Janet looked at me, surprised.

Surprised, Janet looked at me.

After moving the modifier to the beginning of the sentence and using it as an introductory element, I’ve now clarified who is surprised.

The sound rang in my ears, high-pitched and loud.

The sound, high-pitched and loud, rang out in my ears.

Here, I’ve inserted the modifier as a non-essential (or parenthetical) element right after the word it modifies

On the wall, Mark grabbed his keys.

Mark grabbed his keys on the wall.

In this case, I moved the modifier to act as a prepositional phrase after keys. No more Mark on the wall.

Conclusion

Part of the reason why authors tend to create so many misplaced modifiers is because they want to vary the structure of their sentences. I also think it may have something to do with sounding more “literary” or subtle. Some authors may think “On the wall, Mark grabbed his keys” is more interesting than “Marked grabbed his keys on the wall.” I can only speculate. Clarity is king, though. Remember that.

Regardless, the takeaway here is to always place modifiers as close as possible to the words that they modify. I guarantee that your prose will become clearer, less awkward, less cringe-worthy, and more fluid.

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