Tuesday, April 26

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, April 26, 2011 16 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

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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 there's 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."

*this is a repost from June 2010.

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


  1. These are hysterical, Laurel. Thanks! I'm guilty of Squinting Modifiers when I'm not watching. What an interesting name - squinting. Wonder what poet thought of that? LOL

  2. This is a great help. Thanks Laurel. I think I will bookmark this.

  3. Great and funny advice, thanks!
    These can be difficult to spot in our own writing. Good to look out for.

  4. Great post! I've never heard of squinting modifiers - love this term!

  5. My all time favorite (from way back when I was a kid)

    Throw the baby down the stairs her sweater.

    That's the way I remember my modifiers. Great post.

  6. It's so nice to have an editor in the blogging house! Great, fun examples. You have a way with words and their modifiers. ;)

  7. Victoria: Lessons are easier to swallow when we're laughing. I've also wondered who first instituted the term "squinting"? It sure is colorful. All the grammar resources use it.

    Christine: glad you found it helpful.

    Jade: Modifier errors can create a lot of unintended silliness.

  8. KatieO: It's a funny term that I've seen in all sorts of grammar references. It's more pithy than calling them "phrases that make you go 'huh?'"

    Anne: Great example of modifier violence! :-)

    Tricia: Thanks. I wonder if down the line I might have the makings of a non-fiction book.

  9. Thanks for the reminder Laurel. I've just started a great book called Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliot. Kind of like Grammar for Dummies.

  10. Good post and very informative. I am horrible with grammar.

  11. I LOVE misplaced modifiers. They're so rife with humor... :D But this is very good. Very good instruction. Thanks, Laurel! :o) <3

  12. Elle: Another fun grammar book is _Woe is I: A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English_.

    Josh: You might like the book I mentioned above. It makes grammar a lot more fun!

    Leigh: Aren't they the funniest? And I admit I do love coming up with silly examples too.

  13. I so needed to read this.

    When you're plugging away, just trying to get the words out, the last thing you think about is dangling modifiers.

  14. These are great! I'd like to see a ship walking on a bridge.

  15. This is a good reference post to keep. It's funny how just a little different word-placement totally changes a sentence's meaning!