A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that offers a description or identifying details of another word in a sentence. A modifier should always be placed by the word it modifies. Let’s look at some examples below to see what happens when modifiers are misplaced.
The waitress received a large tip with a smile.
The previous sentence is an example of a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier often causes confusion for the reader. The modifying phrase in this example, “with a smile” modifies “The waitress,” not “a large tip,” so the modifying phrase should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies to clarify the meaning:
With a smile, the waitress received a large tip.
Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not only confusing, but can create a ridiculous sentence, as in the examples below:
The children ate the candy they had purchased slowly.
The word “slowly” is modifying “purchased” in the sentence. So it sounds like the children had purchased the candy slowly! What the writer really means is the children were eating the candy slowly.
The children slowly ate the candy they had purchased.
The sentence below also sounds a bit confusing, and quite awkward:
The school children saw a fence behind the school made of barbed wire.
Because the modifying phrase, “made of barbed wire” is directly after “the school,” it sounds like the school was made of barbed wire!
The school children saw a fence made of barbed wire behind the school.
In some cases, a modifier is sandwiched next to two words that could possibly be modified, creating an ambiguous meaning.
Jason told Alex immediately to call his mother.
Did Jason tell Alex immediately? OR was Alex to call immediately? We don’t know, so the sentence needs revising to clarify:
Jason told Alex to call his mother immediately.
Now it’s clear that Alex is to call immediately.
If the writer meant that Jason told Alex immediately, the sentence would look like this:
Jason immediately told Alex to call his mother.
Misplaced modifiers become more complicated when modifying phrases or clauses are placed between main sentence elements, as in the example below:
The cost of attending college, because of inflation and reduced federal support, has risen sharply in recent years.
This sentence is a bit awkward, as the modifying phrase is longer and more complicated. The sentence can be clarified by moving the modifying phrase to the end:
The cost of attending college has risen sharply in recent years because of inflation and reduced federal support.
The example below is also a bit awkward with the modifying phrase in between the subject and predicate:
Anthony could have, if he had not been arrested, played in the championship game.
In this example, moving the modifying phrase to the beginning helps to clarify the sentence:
If he had not been arrested, Anthony could have played in the championship game.
As you can see, misplaced modifiers can not only cause confusion for the reader, but can also sound quite ridiculous! Carefully read your sentences to make sure your sentences are clear and free of misplaced modifiers.
Now you try!
Can you identify the problems below? Reword the following sentences to correct misplaced modifiers.
- Emma Sue was delighted when Mr. Nguyen returned her perfect calculus test with an ear-to-ear grin.
- Attached to the email, Charlotte sent her boyfriend Byron another photographic self-portrait with eerie red eyes.
- While Marina’s tail flopped against the wood, which was long, scaly, and metallic blue, she asked poor Tommy the reason for his pain.
(exercises from http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.01.htm)