Sentences would be pretty boring without modifiers to provide excitement and intrique. Would you rather read a sentence with modifiers that says “Hoping to win friends and influence people, the award-winning new celebrity handed out shiny red Porsches at the exciting awards show” or “The celebrity handed out Porsches.”
Purpose of Modifiers
When modifiers are misplaced or put in the wrong place, things can get quite confusing! Just imagine if the sentence read:
“Hoping to win friends and influence people, porsches red and shiny handed out a celebrity new.”
This second sentence seems farfetched but, misplaced modifiers do commonly occur.
A modifier adds detail or limits or changes the meaning of another word or phrase. For example:
You can identify a modifier by its function in the sentence- is it providing information, adding detail or describing something else? If so, it is probably a modifier.
Placing Modifiers Correctly
Once you have identified a modifier, you need to identify the person, place or thing that it is modifying. Modifiers usually have to accompany the thing they are modifying or go as close to it as possible.
Adjectives typically go before the words they are modifying, or after with helping verbs. For example:
- The pretty girl
- The girl was pretty.
In the first example, pretty is an adjective modifying the noun girl. In the second example, was is a helping verb and pretty is again an adjective modifying girl.
Adverbs can go before or after the thing they are modifying, depending on what exactly is it they are modifying. For example:
- The very pretty girl
- He ran quickly
In the first example, the adverb very is modifying the adjective pretty which is modifying the noun girl. In the second example, the adverb quickly is modifying the verb ran.
When you have a single adjective or adverb, misplaced modifiers rarely occur since they would immediately sound incorrect. However, when a modifying phrase is used, misplaced modifiers become more common.
Confusion of Misplaced Modifiers
Like adjectives or adverbs, modifying phrases must accompany or go as close as possible to the thing they are modifying. If they don’t, a misplaced modifier occurs.
Here are some examples of misplaced modifiers and corrections:
- Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary’s presents were all picked up and admired by Mary many times throughout the course of the day.
Here, this sentence makes it seem as though Mary’s presents were eagerly awaiting Mary’s birthday. Since presents can’t exhibit the emotion of feeling eager, it is unlikely that this modifier is written correctly. The most logical explanation is that Mary was eagerly awaiting her own birthday.
Correction: The modifier should be modifying Mary and the sentence should be rewritten:
- Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary picked up and admired her presents many times throughout the day.
- Tired of all of the nights in hotels, Mitch’s delight was felt by Mitch when his boss finally said he didn’t have to travel anymore.
Here, Mitch’s delight is being modified by the phrase tired of all of the nights in hotels. Unfortunately, Mitch’s delight can’t be tired of this because Mitch’s delight isn’t a person. Instead, it is more likely that Mitch himself is tired.
Correction: We can correct this sentence by moving the proper subject next to the modifier:
- Tired of all of the nights in hotels, Mitch was delighted when his boss finally said he didn’t have to travel anymore.
- She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates.
- She served the children sandwiches on paper plates.
- He nearly drove the car for six hours a day.
- He drove the car for nearly six hours a day.
- She saw a puppy and a kitten on the way to the store.
- On the way to the store, she saw a puppy and a kitten.
- Only Pastor Johnson gave me $5 to clean all his sidewalks.
- Pastor Johnson gave me only $5 to clean all his sidewalks.
- She almost failed every exam she took.
- She failed almost every exam she took.
- People who laugh rarely are sad.
- People who rarely laugh are sad.
- He bought a horse for his sister they call Prince.
- He bought a horse they call Prince for his sister.
- Three offices were reported robbed by the Atlanta police last week.
- Last week, the Atlanta police reported that three offices were robbed.
Confusion of a Dangling Modifier
Note that in both of the examples for misplaced modifiers, the subject being modified was in the wrong place; but, it was still included in the sentence. If the subject wasn’t included at all, the modifier would not be misplaced but would instead be dangling.
A dangling modifier is a related but slightly different error.
Take for example the sentence:
- Tired of all the nights in hotels, Mitch’s delight was palpable when the boss said no more traveling.
Here, there is not even a single mention of the person – Mitch – who is tired. The only mention is of Mitch’s delight, which is a separate subject from Mitch entirely. Thus, this modifier error is dangling and not merely misplaced.