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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Grammar Handbook: Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are single words, phrases, or clauses that do not point clearly to the word or words they modify. As a rule, related words usually should be kept together.

Six Helpful Tips for Placing Modifiers Correctly

  1. Limiting modifiers (only, even, almost, nearly, just) should be placed in front of the words they modify.
    • Unclear: You will only need to plant one package of seeds.
    • Revised: You will need to plant only one package of seeds. ("Only" modifies "one," not "need.")
  2. Place modifying phrases and clauses so that readers can see at a glance what they modify.
    • Unclear: The robber was described as a tall man with a black moustache weighing 150 pounds.
    • Revised: The robber was described as a six-foot-tall man weighing 150 pounds with a black moustache. ("150 pounds" describes the man, not the moustache.)
  3. Sentences should flow from subject to verb to object without lengthy detours along the way. When adverbs separate subject from verb, verb from object, or helping-verb from main-verb, the result can be awkward.
    • Unclear: John, after trying to reach the ball, decided to get a ladder.
    • Revised: After trying to reach the ball, John decided to get a ladder. (Subject and verb are no longer separated.)
  4. Infinitives ("to" + verb, such as "to go," "to catch," "to shout") usually should not be split unless necessary, especially in formal writing.
    • Unclear: The patient should try to, if possible, avoid going up and down stairs.
    • Revised: If possible, the patient should try to avoid going up and down stairs.
  5. Dangling modifiers are word groups (usually introductory) that may seem confusing to some people if they fail to refer logically to any word in a sentence. Rewording a sentence may help to clarify the meaning.
    • Unclear: Deciding to join the navy, the recruiter happily pumped Joe's hand. (The recruiter is not deciding to join the navy; Joe is.)
    • Revised: The recruiter happily pumped Joe's hand after learning that Joe had decided to join the navy.
    • Unclear: Though only sixteen, UCLA accepted Martha's application. (UCLA is not sixteen; Martha is.)
    • Revised: Though Martha was only sixteen, UCLA accepted her application.
  6. Dangling modifiers can be repaired by restructuring the sentence, but this restructuring may vary according to the writer's stylistic preferences.
    • Unclear:
      • When watching films, commercials are especially irritating.
    • Revised:
      • One option would be to change the subject so that it names the actor that the modifier implies:
        • When watching films, I find commercials especially irritating.
      • Another option would be to turn the modifier into a word group that includes the actor:
        • When I am watching films, commercials are especially irritating.