Grammar Tips: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
  • 3-minute read
  • 9th June 2019

Grammar Tips: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers are words and phrases that affect the meaning of another part of a sentence. Using them correctly can make writing richer and more descriptive. But to do this, the modifier must be positioned correctly. If it isn’t, the sentence could become ungrammatical or confusing.

That’s why we are looking at dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers. These are common errors related to modifier placement, so make sure to look out for them in your own writing. Read on to find out more.

Dangling Modifiers

We say a modifier is “dangling” when in a sentence if we cannot tell what it is meant to be modifying. Usually, this is because something hasn’t been clearly identified. Take the following, for instance:

Stepping off the boat, New York looked better than ever.

In the sentence above, we can assume that “Stepping off the boat” applies to a character or narrator, who then expresses their opinion of New York. However, since the subject is not identified in the sentence, it seems like New York is stepping off a boat (and looking great while doing so).

It's a helluva town.
It’s a helluva town.

Correcting a dangling modifier usually involves identifying the thing or person modified. For example, if we knew the sentence was about a woman called Olivia arriving in New York, we could say:

Stepping off the boat, Olivia thought that New York looked better than ever.

In this revised sentence, we can clearly see who the modifier describes.

Misplaced Modifiers

As the name suggest, a misplaced modifier is in the wrong place. This can lead to confusion over what is being modified in a sentence. For example:

Oliver picked up the rubber clown’s nose.

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Here, we can guess we’re dealing with a rubber nose that belongs to a clown. But the sentence by itself is ambiguous: it could imply that Oliver is picking up the nose of a rubber clown! To avoid this ambiguity, we can change the position of the modifying term, such as in the following:

Oliver picked up the clown’s rubber nose.

In the case above, the misplaced modifier is a single word. But it can also occur with phrases or clauses. For instance:

She moved into the building behind the lake with the red door.Incorrect

She moved into the building with the red door behind the lake.Correct

The position of the phrase “with the red door” is key here, since the first sentence above implies that the lake has a door rather than the building. And unless we are careful about where we place modifiers in a sentence, we leave ourselves open to being misunderstood by readers.

Summary: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

A modifier is a word or phrase that affects the meaning of another part of a sentence. However, there are two common errors that arise when it isn’t clear what a modifier is modifying:

  • Dangling modifiers do not have a clear point of reference. To fix this error, you will need to clearly state what the modifier refers to somewhere in the modified sentence or in the surrounding text.
  • Misplaced modifiers modify the wrong part of a sentence, leading to ambiguity or confusion. To fix this, you will need to move the modifying term or phrase so that it is 100% clear what it is modifying.

It can be hard to spot dangling and misplaced modifiers in your own writing, though. As a result, to make extra sure your writing is error free and easy to read, we suggest having it proofread.

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