Language Matters - April 3, 2023 - 3 min

Mislaid Modifiers

Mislaid Modifiers

If you write or speak English, you use modifiers all the time, perhaps without even realizing it. A modifier, to use the dictionary definition, is a word or phrase that limits or qualifies the meaning of another. Here are some examples, with the modifiers in italics:

  • alarm clock
  • secondary school
  • pocket watch
  • thinking cap

As you can see, modifiers can be nouns (alarm), adjectives (secondary) or even forms of verbs (thinking). They can be phrases, too:

  • Being an art student, Henry had more paint than he knew what to do with.
  • The child’s well-loved book was on the couch.

They can even be adverbs:

  • speaking quickly

Modifiers form such a large linguistic category that it might be hard to lay down general rules about them at all. However, it is clear at least that modifiers need to be unambiguously attached to their complements. Otherwise, the results can be confusing if not downright humorous:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.

Groucho Marx

The “in my pyjamas” part of the first sentence is a lighthearted example of a misplaced modifier. The modifier is so unmoored from the thing it modifies that the reader cannot tell what the intended meaning is: is the subject "I" wearing pyjamas, or the elephant? Confusion like this is important to avoid if you want to ensure that your writing is clear and easy to read. Misplaced modifiers might not always conjure up the image of elephants in adorable little pyjamas: they can also cause professional or academic misunderstandings.

In general, there are three common mistakes that writers make with modifiers: the misplaced modifier, the squinting modifier and the dangling modifier.

Misplaced Modifiers

Maria tried to call the cat with the fish.

Here, the problem arises from the modifier “with the fish”. Does the cat have the fish, or does Maria? To make your writing clearer, make sure modifiers are placed as close as they can be to the thing they modify. Here are two ways to fix the previous sentence, depending on the intended meaning:

With the fish, Maria tried to call the cat.

Maria tried to call the cat that had a fish.

Mercifully, common sense will often tell us what an author means. However, when the author’s intent is not immediately clear, misplaced modifiers can cause significant confusion:

We are looking for a tutor for our four-year-old who is trained in second-grade mathematics.

In this case, does the tutor need to be trained in second grade math? Or does the four-year-old already know second grade math?

Unfortunately, these types of mistakes can be hard to spot during the revision process. Your best bet is to practice correcting misplaced modifiers, such as those found in the sentences at the end of this article.

Squinting Modifiers

This type of modifier looks like it could modify an element that comes either before or after it. Commonly, these misplaced modifiers are adverbs. They are so called because they can make your reader squint at your sentence in an effort to discern what it means!

The business that we talked about recently went bankrupt.

Here, it is impossible to tell if the talking happened recently or if the going bankrupt did. To avoid this kind of mistake (which is commonly made by non-native English speakers), be sure that your adverbs are not next to an adjective or verb other than the one they are meant to modify. In the example above, the mistake can be fixed in one of two ways:

The business that we recently talked about went bankrupt.

The business that we talked about went bankrupt recently.

As with the other types of modifier mistakes, the key to good grammar here is to make sure your modifiers stick to their complements like glue.

Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers are modifiers without a cause: they do not appear to have anything to modify. In many cases, the thing modified is implicit, which might be understandable in spoken English, but can sometimes make a written sentence look nonsensical. Take, for example, the following sentence:

Writing for hours, the thesis was finally finished.

Here, the thesis is obviously not writing itself: some unknown author was working very hard! However, the lonely, dangling modifier has nothing else to pair up with here, so the sentence makes no sense taken at face value. You can fix this sentence by giving the modifier an appropriate companion.

Writing for hours, Joseph finally finished his thesis.

Spotting dangling modifiers in your own writing can be tricky, because authors understand what they mean to say. You can ensure that your writing has no dangling modifiers by looking out for phrases with an -ing verb at the beginning of your sentences. (Danglers often take this form.)

Walking home that morning, my neighbourhood looked beautiful.

If you spot a sentence that starts with an -ing modifier, try underlining the noun that follows the comma. That should be what your modifier modifies. Let’s consider the example above: neighbourhoods cannot walk (as far as we know), so something is clearly going wrong here. An acceptable rewrite could take many forms, but could be the following sentence:

As I was walking home that morning, my neighbourhood looked beautiful.

Conclusion: Mind Your Modifiers

While modifiers can add precision and richness when they are used correctly, their improper usage can be confusing or outright incorrect. When in doubt, you might consider omitting a troublesome modifier altogether: it could also help make your writing more concise! To test your knowledge, you can try rewriting the sentences below.

Practice Examples

Missing lots of class, the final project was lacklustre. (Dangling)

My wife talked avidly about the costs of living with several women. (Misplaced)

Sarah almost found all the Easter eggs. (Squinting)

Swinging back and forth slowly entertained the child. (Squinting)

Being a teacher, my class is one of my greatest joys. (Dangling)

The student was directed to the librarian with lots of books. (Misplaced)

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