Don’t Misplace Your Modifiers

Modifiers – such as adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive phrases – should usually be next to the words that they describe. Especially when modifiers are more than one word long, people sometimes place them incorrectly. This can cause unintended meanings and even genuine confusion. Here’s how to get them out of your writing.

1. A misplaced modifier exists when the modifier is placed next to a word other than the one it describes. For example, look at this sentence:

  • Eating kibbles, my brother patted the puppy.

Common sense should tell you that the puppy was the one eating kibbles. However, since the modifier “Eating kibbles” appears right before “my brother,” technically, this sentence means that the brother was eating the kibbles. Uh-oh!

How to Fix This

If you find a misplaced modifier in your work, the best thing to do is to rearrange the sentence such that the modifier is next to the thing it’s supposed to describe. For example, you could rewrite the above sentence like this:

  • My brother patted the puppy eating kibbles.

For extra clarity, you may want to further modify the sentence:

  • My brother patted the puppy that was eating kibbles.
  • My brother patted the puppy while it ate kibbles.

Either way, much better!

Dangling Modifiers

2. A dangling modifier exists when the sentence doesn’t name what it describes. Dangling modifiers are a subset of misplaced modifiers. This sentence provides an example:

  • Lying in the hammock, the sun rose.

The sun doesn’t lie in a hammock (and if it did, we’d probably have some issues). However, the sun is technically the only thing that “lying in the hammock” can modify in this sentence. Again, this is an issue!

To correct a dangling modifier, insert the thing the modifier is supposed to describe. This will probably involve a little extra tinkering with the sentence to make the meaning clearer. The sentence above could be fixed as follows:

  • Lying in the hammock, she watched the sun rise.

This revision specifies who is lying in the hammock and thus corrects the issue with the dangling modifier.

Squinting Modifiers

3. A squinting modifier exists when a modifier is misplaced such that it’s unclear which noun phrase the modifier is supposed to modify. That’s kind of a mouthful, but the concept’s not that hard. Check out this sentence for an example:

  • Running slowly damages your knees.

Is this sentence saying that if you run slowly, you will damage your knees – or is it saying that if you run, you will slowly damage your knees? Slowly in this sentence is a squinting modifier because it is unclear whether it is supposed to modify running or damages. Sometimes context will make clear which word a squinting modifier applies to, but if you can, you’re usually better off eliminating the ambiguity. If you find a squinting modifier in your work, make your intended meaning clearer by rearranging or rewriting the sentence.

  • Slow running damages your knees.
  • Running damages your knees slowly.

Although I’m not sure about the truth value of either statement, each is much clearer than the original.

Of course, as with most things in grammar and style, these are just general guidelines. If you have specific questions, you may want to consult a style guide or even hire an editor to help you out. There are lots of nuances to placing modifiers, but this post should get you started on clarifying your writing.