Grammar Tips: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
  • 3-minute read
  • 8th June 2023

Grammar Tips: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

In the grammar world, positioning is everything. The wrong word in the wrong place can change the entire meaning of a sentence. As such, correct placement of modifiers is crucial.

These ‘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 using them incorrectly can detract from the clarity of your written work.

To help you avoid mistakes, we’re looking at two common errors: dangling and misplaced modifiers.

Dangling Modifiers

There’s nothing more frustrating than a juicy dangler. Admittedly, this is not a standard technical term. But in a grammatical context, a ‘dangling’ modifier modifies something which hasn’t been clearly identified. For instance:

Stepping off the boat, New York looked great.

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, the sentence makes it seem like New York is stepping off a boat (and looking great while doing so).

New York skyline
Or looking better than your average 350-year old, at least.

Correcting a dangling modifier like this usually involves identifying the thing or person modified:

Stepping off the boat, Olivia thought that New York looked great.

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

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Misplaced Modifiers

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

Oliver picked up the rubber clown’s nose.

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

Oliver picked up the clown’s rubber nose.
Best to stay away from clowns altogether, if you ask us.

In the sentence above, the misplaced modifier was a single word. But it can also occur with phrases or clauses:

Dripping with ketchup, Shirley bit into the burger. 
Shirley bit into the burger, which was dripping with ketchup.

The position of ‘dripping with ketchup’ is important here, since the first sentence implies that ‘Shirley’ is covered in ketchup. By placing the modifier closer to the thing being modified, we can clarify the sentence meaning. Hopefully, this shows how important modifier placement can be!

Check out our lengthy guide for editors to read more on dangling and misplaced modifiers. Or if you’d like an editor to review your work, we’d be more than happy to proofread a free sample of your writing!

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