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20th March, 2017

The GP Grammar Guide: Misplaced and dangling modifiers

Some grammatical errors are more subtle than others. One such example is that of dangling or misplaced modifiers—perhaps the most common mistake you’ve never heard of.

Take these three sentence below (examples from Wilson & Glazier’s The Least You Should Know about English). Do you spot any issues?

Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared.

At the age of eight, my family bought a dog.

After a two-hour nap, the train pulled into the station.

All of these suffer from modifier problems.

A modifier is something that serves to modify a word and add information to a sentence—for example, in this sentence…

Rushing to catch the train, Emma nearly tripped.

…the clause before the comma (“rushing to catch the train”) modifies the sentence by adding information. With its addition, we know that Emma was in a rush to catch her train when she almost fell. Without it, the sentence still works but is left more vague (“Emma nearly tripped”).

However, by definition, modifiers must modify something. When such a word is not clearly defined or related in a logical way to the modifier itself, the modifier is dangling. When such a word is used at the wrong point in a sentence or separated oddly from the modifier itself, the modifier is misplaced. Such sentences can become ambiguous, awkward, and completely confusing.

Dangling modifiers

At the age of eight, my family bought a dog.

Here, the modifier is, as is often the case, preceding the comma: “at the age of eight”. Common sense tells us that the person “speaking” to us was eight years old when their family bought a dog, but that’s not what this sentence says. The modifier has nothing to hold on to–it “dangles”—and the implication is that the family itself was eight years old when they bought a dog. The modifying clause needs a subject and verb, as in the below:

When I was eight, my family bought a dog.

The same is true of our previous example.

Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared.

It seems that the school building itself turned the corner and then appeared! This reading of the sentence is evidently ridiculous—but it is grammatically accurate. The sentence could be rewritten as:

Turning the corner, I saw a handsome school building, or

A handsome school building appeared as I turned the corner.

Dangling modifiers are usually fixed by the addition of more information (e.g. a subject and verb) to help clarify and correct the sentence—moving the modifier is usually an insufficient solution. They primarily appear at the beginning of sentences, before commas, but do occur elsewhere.

Misplaced modifiers

When a modifier is misplaced, it can make a sentence completely nonsensical.

On his way home, the boy found a gold woman’s bracelet.

Common sense tells us that the boy found a gold bracelet that belonged to a woman—but the sentence tells us that the boy found a bracelet that belonged to a woman made of gold! To correct it and take away some of the oddity, we can simply move the modifier:

On his way home, the boy found a woman’s gold bracelet.

Misplaced modifiers can pop up in various forms. They can be adjectives, as in the previous example, adverbs, and more. Take the following example of how an adverb (“just”) can completely alter the meaning of a single sentence (example from mbauniverse.com):

Just Alex was picked to host the programme—Only Alex was selected to host.

Alex was just picked to host the programme—Alex was picked right now to host.

Alex was picked to host just the programme—Alex will only be hosting the programme.

This demonstrates the importance of correctly using modifiers to convey your message clearly and accurately. While many mistakes can be deciphered using common sense, such an approach lays the responsibility for understanding at the feet of your reader, and requires a lot of good faith (and the same level of cultural/linguistic understanding).

Instead, make it your mission to banish the misplaced or dangling modifier, and your writing will become far clearer as a result.

Test yourself

Can you correct the following mis-modified sentences?

Walking down Wellington Street, the restaurants were packed

Reaching the station, the sun came out

I saw the trailer peeking through the window

Roaring down the track at seventy miles per hour, the stalled car was smashed by the train

Email us and let us know how you get on! There are several ways to correctly edit these sentences, but you can find suggested answers here.

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