Need-to-know Grammar: Misplaced Modifiers

May 29, 2006

A misplaced modifier is a modifying word, phrase, or clause that seems to refer to the wrong word in a sentence.

When reading a sentence that contains a modifier, pay attention to what the modifier is describing.

My friend saw a puppy on the way to school.

The modifying phrase "on the way to school" is misplaced. Since it is closer to "puppy" than to "my friend," the modifier seems to describe "puppy." The puppy was not on the way to school. My friend was on the way to school. To correct the sentence, move the modifier closer to the words it is describing.

On the way to school, my friend saw a puppy.

This sentence is clearer than the original because the modifier is no longer misplaced.

My mother put the cookies onto the table that she had baked.

The modifying clause in this sentence is "that she had baked." What does it describe? The modifier's proximity to "table" makes it seem as if the table had been baked. To clarify the meaning of the sentence, move the modifying clause closer to the word that it describes ("cookies.")

My mother put the cookies that she had baked onto the table.

Some adverbs can cause confusion in a sentence when they are misplaced. Check the placement of the following adverbs carefully:

  • almost
  • ever
  • even
  • just
  • only
  • merely
  • scarcely

I almost read the entire book.

The adverb "almost" seems to be modifying the verb "read." This would mean that I did not read the book. I almost read the book. Move the modifier closer to the word it is modifying to correct the sentence.

I read almost the entire book.

This sentence makes more sense than the original.

The Girl Scout only sold one box of cookies this week.

The adverb "only" is misplaced in this sentence because it appears to modify the verb "sold" instead of the adjective "one." This sentence implies that she "only sold" the cookies. She did not eat them, she did not hide them, she did not crush them under her feet – she only sold them. "Only" should modify "one" because she sold "only one box." Move "only" closer to the word it modifies so that the sentence makes more sense.

The Girl Scout sold only one box of cookies this week.

Another type of misplaced modifier is called a "dangling modifier." The modifier is said to be "dangling" from the end of a sentence when it does not clearly and logically modify any word in the sentence.

To prepare for a hurricane, many bottles of water and cans of food should be bought.

The modifier, the infinitive phrase "to prepare for a hurricane," modifies the subject of the sentence. The subject is "many bottles of water and cans of food." Bottles and cans do not prepare for a hurricane. A person must prepare for a hurricane. Restructure the sentence so that the modifier refers to a logical subject.

To prepare for a hurricane, you should buy many bottles of water and cans of food.

This dangling modifier was an infinitive phrase. A dangling participle is a misplaced modifier that is a participial phrase.

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2 Responses to “Need-to-know Grammar: Misplaced Modifiers”

  1. tinanaa Says:

    Hey, thanks 4 ur infomation!
    I have a question here lol.

    FOR BUIDING vocabulary skills, students should try to speak and write new words in appropriate contexts, rather than merely memorizing definitions.
    SAT says “the participle BUIDING dangles in the original sentence. It should be changed to the infinitive TO BUILD so that it properly modifies the verb try.” When I read the sentence, I feels it’s wrong. But I DONT GET WHAT SAT IS SAYING. Can you explain?

  2. Tutor Says:

    Dear Spazgirl,

    Thanks for these posts, including the “Celebrity Grammar” links. I tutor the SAT and those examples will be much more entertaining for my students to work on than the ones in their prep books. May I use the information on this blog in my tutoring as exercises?

    If I don’t hear from you, I’ll take that as a “yes.” Please email me directly. Thank you very much!


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