Misplaced modifiers make sentences, paragraphs, and, sometimes, even entire stories confusing.
Modifiers are simply words that describe the noun in any given sentence.
A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is in the wrong place in the sentence so that its intended meaning is lent to the wrong noun, making the context of the sentence confusing. It amounts to having text with a very different meaning than what the writer intended.
This article will explain modifiers, misplaced modifiers, and dangling modifiers and provide several misplaced modifier examples.
Misplaced Modifier Vs. Dangling Modifier
These terms refer to modifiers gone wrong in a sentence, but they do not mean the same thing. In a situation that included a misplaced modifier, the word, that is the modifier, is next to the incorrect noun, and it gives the sentence a meaning that was not intended.
On the other hand, a dangling modifier occurs when a modifier is in the sentence, but the noun is completely missing from the sentence, which makes no sense.
List of Misplaced Modifier Examples
Consider the following examples of sentences in which a misplaced modifier makes the sentence ambiguous and explains why there are very different meanings because of modifier error.
Example: Hiding under the porch from the rain, Adam could not find his dog.
There is a misplaced modifier in the above example, making the sentence seem like Adam is hiding under the porch from the rain rather than his dog. Adam will have difficulty finding his dog if he is not even looking because he hides under the porch.
We can fix this simple mistake by rearranging words to make the sentence sensible.
Example: Adam could not find his dog, who was hiding under the porch from the rain.
The first sentence was messy and confusing. This second sentence clears it all up. The sentence means what it intended to mean now: The dog was hiding; therefore, Adam could not find it.
Misplaced Modifiers in Speech
It can be easy to use a misplaced modifier when we are talking. It is common when we are nervous. We tend to babble or stumble over our words, making our speech hard to understand or unintelligible at its worst.
Think about the last job interview you went to—you were probably nervous. If you were lucky, you said every word phrase or clause in the correct order and structure, and from the first sentence to the last, were articulate and sophisticated.
But what if you were not? How can you prevent misplaced modifiers in speech? The answer is simple: speak in short and direct sentences. If you keep it short and direct, each sentence will mean exactly the way you want them to be.
This often goes for writing, as well. Say what you want to say, and there will be a low chance of stumbling over a complicated turn of phrase. Only use a modifier if it is necessary to do so.
The Dangling Modifier
A dangling modifier is when you have a word in place to be used as a modifier, but the noun it is supposed to describe is not present in the sentence. See if you can derive meaning from the following sentence.
Example: Having left me out, the party was thrown anyway.
This introduces all sorts of questions to the equation. What is the meaning of the sentence? Who left the author out? Whose party was it? What was the party for? Was the author supposed to have been included?
This example sentence gives us more questions than information. No word, noun phrase, or clause is given to the reader about the correct version of this sentence. The author needed to provide more details—the sentence is ambiguous.
Misplaced Modifiers as Jokes
There is a long history of using misplaced modifiers as jokes. Before the ever-popular “dad joke” became a trend, similar jokes were made famous by people like Groucho Marx, who used grammar errors that produced ambiguity in meaning to get laughs from people. His most famous example is probably “An Elephant in My Pajamas.” The joke is included below.
“One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How did he get in my pajamas? I don’t know!”
While this modifier intentionally describes the wrong noun, the following is an accidental modifying word that describes something other than the intended subject. While comical, it can add confusion as to what exactly it modifies.
Example: The cook served a steak to a client that was cooked medium-rare.
The correction to this sentence would be something like: The cook served a medium-rare steak to the client. However, due to the misplaced modifier and the ambiguous meaning given, the lack of clarity can be used as a witty joke. It reads as though the client was cooked to a medium-rare degree.
Students and Misplaced Modifiers
Correct grammar is essential for students. It becomes the teacher’s job to instruct students how to write in a way that includes more complicated parts of speech, like modifiers, adverbs, clauses, adjectives, and many more.
Students must be instructed on how errors can be fixed when wrong nouns are modified in a sentence. The following are examples of incorrect modifiers that render an ambiguous sentence and another sentence with the correct structure. If you are a teacher or a student, feel free to practice with examples such as these.
Example: He lost nearly all of his toes to frostbite in the Alps.
Correction: He nearly lost all of his toes to frostbite in the Alps.
Both of these examples make sense, but they mean different things. The first sentence hints that the sentence’s subject lost most of his toes to frostbite. In the second sentence, it is implied that the person came close to losing toes in frostbite. The writer needs to know what they mean when crafting a sentence and modifying it.
Example: Margie served champagne to the guests in tall glasses.
Correction: Margie served champagne in tall glasses to the guests.
The first example reads as though Margie served drinks to guests inside tall glasses, which is silly and makes little logical sense. It is fixed in the second sentence, and now it makes more sense.
Clarify the Object You Wish to Describe
It is very easy to commit a mistake and not realize it when using modifiers.
You create a link between a modifier and a noun, but placement is key, or the point of it all flies right out the window. Putting a modifier in the text is something that all writers need to be careful about because writers know what they mean, but the reader does not, which makes all the difference.
It is easy to assume that the audience or readers know what you mean when you produce a text, especially in the beginning stages of writing. However, this is not always the case. You may see the story in your mind, but the reader trusts you to get them to the point with clarity, not confusion.
Always read anything you write more than once and look for misplaced and dangling modifiers in your work. You must adopt this practice to clean up your sentences with improper modifiers and give your readers a good reading experience.
You can also use grammar checking and editing tools readily available online to help catch misplaced and dangling modifiers, an incorrect sentence, or other errors that make a sentence unclear. These tools also provide an alternative word phrase or clause so the sentence makes more sense. Some tools are free, others require as subscription.