Chapter 6-3: Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is not placed right next to the word that it describes.
In the case of dangling modifiers, it is not clear which word they could modify, if any at all!
There is a certain amount of freedom on where to place modifiers in a sentence:
We rowed the boat vigorously.
We vigorously rowed the boat.
Vigorously we rowed the boat.
Authors can improve their writing style by paying attention to basic problems like misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers.
Mistakes related to misplaced modifiers can be potentially humourous. Consider the following sentences:
I suddenly saw a massive rock swimming in the lake.
? The rock was swimming?
✔ Swimming in the lake, I suddenly saw a massive rock.
Walking down the street, Jack found a gold woman's necklace.
? The woman is made out of gold?
✔ Walking down the street, Jack found a woman's gold necklace.
Mary served cookies to the guests on china plates.
? Why were the guests on china plates?
✔ Mary served cookies on china plates to the guests.
How to Create Misplaced Modifiers
Not that anyone would want to, but here are some of the more popular methods that people use to unintentionally create misplaced modifiers.
Misplace an Adjective
This problem occurs when the adjective is not right beside the noun it modifies.
I saw a man eat a hot plate of french fries at lunch.
? The plate was hot?
✔ I saw a man eat a plate of hot french fries at lunch.
Misplace an Entire Phrase or Clause
Misplaced modifiers are not always just misplaced words. They can be entire phrases or clauses within a sentence.
The salesperson sold the backpack to the customer with large pockets.
? The customer was wearing clothes with big pockets?
✔ The salesperson sold the backpack with large pockets to the customer.
The butcher sold a sausage to the man that was well seasoned.
? The man was covered in salt and spices?
✔ The butcher sold a sausage that was well seasoned to the man.
The bartender said at noon he would open the bar.
? Huh? Which is it?
✔ At noon, the bartender said he would open the bar. (The declaration was made at noon.)
✔ The bartender said he would open the bar at noon. (The bar is supposed to open at noon.)
Misplace an Adverb
This problem occurs when an adjective is placed beside a word that it wasn't intended to modify. Sometimes misplacing an adverb can result in a grammatically correct sentence; however, its meaning becomes completely different, ridiculous, or humorous.
✔ I swam in the pool wearing the new bathing suit that I had courageously purchased.
? You were courageous to purchase a piece of clothing from a cashier?
✔ I courageously swam in the pool wearing the new bathing suit that I had purchased.
Create a Squinting Modifier
A squinting modifier is an ambiguously placed modifier that can modify either the word before it or the word after it. In other words, it is "squinting" in both directions at the same time.
Defining your terms clearly strengthens your argument.
? Huh? Which is it? Does defining "clearly strengthen" or does "defining clearly" strengthen?
✔ Defining your terms will clearly strengthen your argument.
✔ A clear definition of your terms strengthens your argument.
Driving down streets quickly increases a driver's perception.
? Huh? Which is it? Does driving fast increse perception, or does driving rapidly increase perception?
✔ Driving quickly down streets increases a driver's perception.
✔ Driving down streets increases a driver's perception quickly.
These types of modifiers are said to "dangle" because they're just loosely hanging in a sentence, unconnected to anything. Consider the following sentences:
Having finished preparing the meal, the oven was turned off..
? The oven turned itself off?
✔ Having finished preparing the meal, Billie's mom turned off the oven.
Without knowing the class of fire, it was difficult to choose an extinguisher.
? Who didn't know which extinguisher to choose? "It" cannot cannot choose.
✔ Because I didn't know the class of fire, it was difficult to choose an extinguisher.
To camp in the forest, a pass is required.
? Who is camping in the forest?
✔ To camp in the forest, visitors need a pass.
The dangling modifier generally appears at the beginning of sentences. It can be a phrase that behaves as an adjective but does not modify any specific word in the sentence, or modifies the wrong word. For example:
Born in Quebec City, it is only natural to miss snowy winters.
? This is problematic because the word "born" implies a person, but there is no person. Instead, the nearest noun or pronoun that follows is "it." This doesn't make sense since "it" can't be born.
✔ As a person that was born in Quebec City, it is only natural to miss snowy winters.
✔ Born in Quebec City, I often miss snowy winters.
Dangling modifiers can also appear in the form of an elliptical clause—a dependent clause whose subject and verb are implied rather than declared:
Although nearly eaten, I left the meal early because I had to go to work early the following day.
? This is problematic because the closest pronoun to the clause is "I," suggesting that "I" was nearly eaten, not the meal! This can be repaired by placing the subject and verb in the clause.
✔ Although the meal was nearly eaten, I left early because I had to go to work early the following day.