Tuesday, June 29

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 29, 2010 17 comments
Dear Editor-on-call,

I got this comment in a critique of mine and I have NO idea what it means. Could you shed some light? I feel so stupid, but I just don't get the terminology: "Misplaced modifiers. I’m seeing this phenomenon all the time with my clients! You do this just a little, but watch your antecedents."

Mystified about Modifiers

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dear Mystified,

Your knuckle-rapping English teachers were trying to break you of this problem when they made you diagram sentences. You might have vague memories of identifying sentence parts as subject, verb, object. Each of these sentence parts can have modifiers--words or phrases that tell details about them.

Problems arise when those details are not close enough to the word they describe. The resulting sentences can be confusing at best, and inadvertently hilarious at worst.

Let's look at some examples.

Subject modifier misplaced

Example: The boy chased the cat who had asthma.

Whoops--Asthmatic kitties are not too common (though friends of mine work for a recording label by that name). The modifier needs to move closer to the subject, "the boy."

Revised: The boy who had asthma chased the cat.
Alternate: The asthmatic boy chased the cat.

Example: Growling and snapping, Melody was stalked by the werewolf.

Whoops--Is Mel trying to confuse the predator? More likely the writer doesn't realize the subject and object are in the wrong order.

Revised: Growling and snapping, the werewolf stalked Melody.

Example: Walking along the bridge, a ship suddenly appeared.

Whoops--Is The Ship Who Walked related to Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang? You've got either some really wacky personification or a sentence with an unclear subject. I chose the latter.

This example is what's usually called a "dangling modifier"--the part of speech being described is actually missing. This sentence needs an actor walking and seeing that ship appear. Here are three ways to resolve the issue:

Revised: Walking along the bridge, the captain saw a ship suddenly appear.
Alternate: A ship suddenly appeared while the captain was walking along the bridge.
Alternate 2: As the captain walked along the bridge, a ship suddenly appeared.

Verb modifier misplaced

Example: He kept a black book of all the girls he had dated in his desk.

Whoops--It might get a mite crowded in there among the paperclips! That directional "in his desk" needs to be closer to the verb "kept."

Revised: He kept in his desk a black book of all the girls he'd dated.
Alternate: In his desk, he kept a black book of all the girls he had dated.
Alternate 2 (with a shifting emphasis): There in Jason's desk drawer was his black book--a list of all the girls he'd dated.

Example: Larry told me he was getting married that afternoon at night.

Whoops--When the heck is the wedding?? Oy vey. Please separate the time of the telling from the information told. "That afternoon" modifies "told," describing when Larry gave information.

Revised: That afternoon, Larry told me he was getting married at night.
Alternate: That afternoon, Larry told me about his plans for a nighttime wedding.

Object modifier misplaced

Example: You need someone to carry that load with a strong back.

Whoops--It the load is so strong, why can't it carry itself? The modifier "with a strong back" needs to move closer to the object of the sentence, "someone."

Revised: You need someone with a strong back to carry that load.

Example: I showed my dog to the veterinarian with the fleas.

Whoops--That poor, itchy vet! Sounds like he's been infested. In this case, it's the object "my dog" that needs to be closer to its modifier "with the fleas."

Revised: I showed the veterinarian my dog with the fleas.

Word order problems

Limiting modifiers can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where they are placed. Some words to beware of: only, not only, just, not just, almost, hardly, nearly, even, exactly, merely, scarcely, and simply.

Below are examples of how a sentence's meaning can change when one moves around a limiting modifier.

Subject modified:
Just Evan drank a Coke.
(No others drank Coke, only Evan did.)

Verb modified:
Evan just drank a Coke.
(Others had a big bar brawl while Evan sat there sipping his cola.)

Object modified:
Evan drank just a Coke.
(Others had vodka tonics, but Evan? Just Coke.)

Squinting modifiers are modifying phrases that could modify more than one part of a sentence. Clarity problems arise when you place them near to both possible choices.

Example: She said on Sunday she would call.

Whoops--Did she say it on Sunday? Or is she going to call on Sunday? We don’t know. The phrase “on Sunday” could modify “said” or it could modify “would call.” Revising sentences like this usually requires adding words to make clear who's doing what and when.

Revised: On Sunday, she said she would call me soon.
Alternate: On Sunday, she said, "I'll call you."

To capture the other possible meaning, try these revisions:
Revised: She just said she would call me Sunday night.
Alternate: She said, "I'll call you on Sunday."

Hope that provides the clarity you were seeking.

As a side note, your editor friend was misusing the grammar term "antecedent" to mean "a thing referred to." The term should only be used when discussing pronouns. The correct grammatical term for something being modified is "headword."


Which of these areas trip you up? Any other helpful pointers for correctly placing modifiers with their headwords?


  1. Nice review! I play by ear so much I forget the formal terms for thingamajigs like modifiers.

    - Eric

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Excellent lesson, Laurel. Great examples! :-)

  4. What a great lesson! Thank you, Laurel!

  5. Love the examples you give for these lessons!

  6. I've seen squinting modifiers before but didn't know they had their own special name.

  7. Great advice for crisp and clear writing!

  8. Hi Laurel -

    Thanks for defining the term and giving examples. I'm reminded of church bulletin bloopers that occasionally end up in my email inbox.

    Susan :)

  9. This is a very informing post with brilliant examples. I'm not very good when it comes to literary terms, so it's good to learn something new!

  10. I deleted my earlier post because it just didn't come out right! What I meant to say was that I struggled with this lesson this year in English 1001(refresher). I had to go back over it before it clicked. I like your explanation best - it's so clear. Thanks Laurel! Leah

  11. AA: Glad it fit the bill for what you needed to know.

    Jennifer: Thanks. I tried to add some humor to keep it from being too dry.

    Eric: Truthfully, I had to give myself a refresher course. I took two grammar-intensive courses--one as an undergrad and one in grad school--but that was years ago.

    Shannon: thanks so much.

    Talli: Your're most welcome.

    Vicki: I always remember best things that make me laugh, and figure others probably to too.

    Southpaw: that was a new term to me, too, one that I found researching this question. Fun lingo, isn't it? It's like you look at such a phrase, squint and say "huh? what do you mean?"

  12. Jemi: my unique twist was to separate the examples into subject, verb and object modifier problems.

    Karen: Thanks. Clarity is so important, isn't it?

    Susan: Indeed misplaced modifiers often result in really silly-sounding sentences!

    Keri: Most folks don't get much grammar training beyond a few intensive units in junior high, unless they train to be an editor or an English teacher. Glad you found this useful. Researching was a good refresher for me too.

    Leah: While researching misplaced modifiers, it bothered me that no one made the connection to parts of speech and diagramming. Showing the problem affecting each part of a sentence makes sense, doesn't it?

  13. Yes, I'm anxiously awaiting my final exam grade to see if I got it right!

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