What is a misplaced modifier?

Do you know what a misplaced modifier is? Today's your day to learn about these guys! 

What is a misplaced modifier?

Before we delve into this fascinating topic, let's examine regular modifiers. Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that describe (modify) other words or groups of words. 

I love sandy beaches.

only drove to the beach.

Sandy and only are modifiers. Sandy is an adjective modifying the noun beachesOnly is an adverb modifying the verb drove.

I enjoyed the hot dog covered in mustard and relish.

Covered in mustard and relish is a modifier. It is a participial phrase (adjective) modifying the noun hot dog.

Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers are misplaced if they modify words that they are not intended to modify or if their placement conveys an unintended meaning.

The only difference in the following two sentences is the placement of the modifier only, but these sentences have different meanings. 

1. I drove only to the beach.

2. I only drove to the beach.

Sentence 1 

This sentence is saying that I drove, and the beach was my one destination.

Sentence 2

This sentence is somewhat ambiguous. It could be saying that I drove to the beach, and that's all that I did. I didn't watch television or mow the lawn. It could also be saying that I didn't bike or walk to the beach. I only drove.

Many people would use sentence 2 to convey the idea of sentence 1. But, if you want to eliminate any chance of misunderstanding, be sensitive about the placement of modifiers like only

Fixing Them

The bad news is that misplaced modifiers can confuse your reader. The good news is that they can be very amusing.

Let's look at two funny examples. We'll also be fixing them by rewording the sentence or moving the modifier so that it is close to the word that it is supposed to modify. 

Example 1

Covered in mustard and relish, I enjoyed the hot dog. --> NO

Do you see how covered in mustard and relish is closest to I? (This sounds like some kind of avant-garde spa treatment!)

We want to change it so that it is closest to the word that it modifies - hot dog.

I enjoyed the hot dog covered in mustard and relish. --> YES

Example 2

Spitting out hot lava, my friend took photos

as the volcano erupted. --> NO

Do you see how spitting out hot lava comes right before friend? (Yikes! Her mouth must hurt!) We need to change that.

There are a number of ways to fix this sentence by rewording it. Here are two possibilities.

The volcano began spitting out hot lava, and my friend took photos of it. --> YES

 As the volcano began spitting out hot lava, my friend took photos of it. --> YES

It's Your Turn

Can you fix the following misplaced modifiers? You'll find the answers at the bottom of the page. (Remember that there is usually more than one way to fix these.)

1. Illuminated by candlelight, my mom admired the restaurant's decor. 

2. Once used in every classroom, teachers are beginning to abandon blackboards.

3. They said it will rain on the television.

Sentence Diagramming

Sometimes, diagramming misplaced modifiers can show us the different meanings that the sentence has. 

This diagram shows us that covered in mustard and relish is modifying the pronoun I.

Covered in mustard and relish, I enjoyed the hot dog.

This diagram shows us that covered in mustard and relish is modifying the noun hot dog.

 I enjoyed the hot dog covered in mustard and relish.

Possible Answers

1. My mom admired the restaurant's decor, which was illuminated by candlelight.

2. Teachers are beginning to abandon blackboards, which were once used in every classroom.

3. On the television, they said it will rain.

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar.

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