Help! I’ve misplaced my modifier and I don’t know what to do!

My target for this week’s rant is the misplaced modifier and its close cousin, the dangling participle. I can think of no other grammar no-no that can create as much confusion as these woefully common (and often hilarious) errors. Why? Because they cause a reader to stop mid-sentence and force the reader to reconstruct the sentence until it makes sense, which could be a matter of nanoseconds, or minutes. Either way, it’s not the goal that we, as professional writers, strive for, so we need to learn to recognize these errors and understand how to correct them.

Simply put, a modifier is a word or phrase intended to enhance or clarify another word or phrase. For most clarity, it should appear as close as possible to the word/phrase it’s modifying. When the modifier is misplaced or is left dangling, it confuses.  (Let’s face it, there aren’t many things that do well when improperly placed or left “dangling,” are there?) And it’s easy, so easy, to weave these gems, quite accidentally, into your writing, if you’re not paying attention. Your mind starts off one way, then takes a detour, and voila’! Your modifier is wandering off, enhancing some other word or phrase that you didn’t intend. In fact, in the case of a dangling modifier, the thing you’re trying to modify might have escaped the sentence altogether!

Here’s a (hopefully) obvious example of incorrect usage using “as,” which I find one of the worst of the misplacing culprits:

As a long-time employee, the CEO presented me with a silver watch at our annual awards ceremony.

The modifier in this sentence is: As a long-time employee. But what is it trying to modify? Who’s the long-time employee? As the sentence reads, it’s the CEO.  But that’s not what we mean, is it? The long-time employee is meant to be me.

To correct, we need to switch the point of view of the sentence from the CEO to me.

Here’s a corrected version:

As a long-time employee, I was honored to accept a silver watch from the CEO at our annual awards ceremony.

See the difference?

Another common mis-usage often happens when using the word “with.” Writers, pay attention when using “with”!

Excited, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid, and dug inside the depths of the box with hands itching to be filled.

This one isn’t quite so obvious, and it probably wouldn’t cause too many lifted eyebrows, but it’s there: with hands itching to be filled. Exactly who or what has itching hands — the box, or Sally? Sally, of course. The problem occurred because I didn’t place the modifying phrase close enough to the word it’s supposed to modify (Sally).

A better construction would have been something like:

Excited, her hands itching to be filled, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid and dug inside the depths of the box.

(Hey, sometimes it’s hard sometimes to come up with these examples! Anyway, let’s move on.)

Dangling participles/modifiers happen when the writer attempts to modify something that isn’t really there. Example:

Jogging down the path, a stone got lodged in my sneaker, making me wince.

Wow…I think I’d pay to see that stone jogging, wouldn’t you? Of course, I left the poor modifier (jogging down the path) dangling there all by its lonesome because I didn’t include “me” in the object of the modifier. I have my sneaker in there, but that’s not jogging either. I’m the one who’s jogging. (Not in real life, trust me. Although that’s a topic for another day.)

Correctly written, the sentence would read:

Jogging down the path, I winced when a stone got lodged in my sneaker.

Again, the sentence is not exactly worthy of a Pulitzer, but at least the right thing is jogging in this one.

If you find yourself misplacing or dangling your modifiers, take heart! You’re not alone! In fact, these offenses can be found daily in publications and advertisements, and many of them are quite funny. The next time you’re reading something and have to stop and think about what the sentence means, check for the modifiers and see if they’re where they’re supposed to be. After some practice, you’ll be more skilled at spotting them in your own writing. You might even have a few laughs along the way!

Words matter.

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing.

2 thoughts on “Help! I’ve misplaced my modifier and I don’t know what to do!

  • After a computer crash, I’m playing catch-up with your posts. Wait… is that right?

    About the sentence: Excited, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid, and dug inside the depths of the box with hands itching to be filled.

    I don’t know if I would have caught that in a critique. My first inclination was to rewrite it this way: Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid, and with hands itching to be filled, she dug into the depths of the box. Would that work?

    I find if I stop to think about how I’m writing/constructing, I’ll get super confused. Best for me to get it down then go back to edit. However, I got a critique recently and my friend caught several of these misplaced things; I was stunned! 🙂

    • Love your rewrite of Sally’s sentence, Jess! I agree, some of these dangling/misplaced things are more obvious than others, and that one was probably more gray than I had intended. I’m like you — when I get absorbed in a story, I don’t pay close attention to sentence construction. (In fact, after I posted this piece, I fretted that I might have inadvertently popped a dangler or some other error in there!) I don’t think we should be worried about perfect grammar while we’re in that creative phase, though. That’s what edits are for. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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