Misplaced Modifier – How to Avoid & Fix Them

31.10.22 Grammatical rules & structures Time to read: 4min

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Misplaced modifier are grammatical modifiers, which are positioned improperly within a sentence. This can often result in situations where it is ambiguous what part of the sentence is being modified, or where the wrong part of the sentence is modified in the mind of the reader, altering the way in which the sentence is interpreted. Misplaced modifiers, if not addressed appropriately as per language rules, can obscure the intended meaning in academic writing.

Misplaced Modifier – In a Nutshell

  • Misplaced modifier are grammatical modifiers within a sentence, which have been placed in a way that makes their meaning unclear.
  • This can take the form of squinting modifiers, where it is ambiguous what is being modified, or dangling modifiers, where there is an absence of a subject to be modified within a sentence.
  • Regardless of the type, misplaced modifier can make sentences significantly harder to understand or comprehend.

Definition: Misplaced Modifier

A modifier within a sentence is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “a word or phrase that is used with another word or phrase to limit or add to its meaning”. With this in mind, misplaced modifier can be described as grammatical modifiers, which are incorrectly placed within a sentence, obscuring the intended meaning.

Within the English language, modifiers can alter words or phrases that come before or after the modifier itself. As a result, misplaced modifier often appear in academic work submitted by students.

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How to fix a misplaced modifier

With ambiguous modifiers or squinting modifiers, the misplaced modifier may usually be fixed by repositioning the modifier, so that the modified part of the sentence becomes clearer. With dangling modifiers, on the other hand, the misplaced modifier may often be fixed by inserting a subject next to the modifier.

The table below demonstrates some examples of misplaced modifier and how they can be amended:

Misplaced Modifier Corrected
The man who ran quickly lost weight. The man who ran lost weight quickly.
Reaching the peak, the wind blew. When I reached the peak, the wind blew.
He walked up the road covered in mud. Covered in mud, he walked up the road.
Visiting home, memories came back. Visiting home, memories came back to me.

Placement of adverbs

The position of adverbs may dramatically alter the meaning of a sentence, so writers need to be careful when using these modifiers, as they may easily become misplaced modifier. Take a look at the uses of the adverbs “only” and “quickly” below to see how the meaning of the sentence is altered.

Adverb placement Meaning
I have only been playing guitar for a year. Only one year of playing the guitar
I have been playing guitar only for a year. Exclusively playing the guitar
Running quickly can improve fitness. Running at speed will boost fitness.
Running can quickly improve fitness. Fitness improves quickly from running.

The English language does not have strict universal rules for where adverbs should be placed, as they can appear at the start of a sentence, before the verb, after the verb, or at the end of a sentence. Students should, therefore, take extra care when using adverbs and re-read sentences to make sure their placement provides the right meaning.

Ambiguous modifiers

Ambiguous or squinting modifiers are some of the most common misplaced modifier, and they may be easily missed, so students should look over sentences carefully. Below, are two examples of situations where the misplaced modifier could technically modify words before or after them, making their meaning ambiguous:

Ambiguous Unambiguous
Going shopping often is boring. Going shopping is often boring.
He said eventually he will do it. He said he will do it eventually.

In the first ambiguous example above, the modifier, “often”, could be describing going shopping frequently, or it could be describing the fact that going shopping is often boring. In the second example, the modifier, “eventually”, could be describing the action he will eventually do, or it could be saying that he eventually said he would do something.

Modifier can alter words to the left or the right of them. This makes it essential that writers position them carefully so that the meaning is clear.

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Common types of misplaced modifier include dangling modifiers, which are misplaced modifier that seem to lack a subject. Squinting modifiers are misplaced modifier that are ambiguous, as they appear to modify something both before and after them in the sentence.

In the sentence: “He wore a watch on his wrist that was too big”, the modifying phrase “that was too big” may be considered misplaced. While it may be reasonably interpreted that the sentence describes a watch that is too big, it may also be interpreted that the person’s wrist is too big. A better placement would be: “He wore a watch that was too big on his wrist”.

Modifiers are often placed directly before or after the part of a sentence they are modifying. A sentence’s level of ambiguity or clarity when the modifier appears in different locations may help to determine the ideal place for the modifier. If the modifier begins a sentence, it will modify the subject of the sentence. Grammatical modifiers must always be used to modify a word, phrase, or group of words that are located within the same sentence.