How to Avoid or Use Misplaced Modifiers
by Owen Fourie
What is wrong with these statements?
- While waiting for a meal, the restaurant became crowded.
- A dog dug a hole in the garden wearing a red collar.
- Looking toward the west, the sky was red in the sunset.
- While drinking my coffee, my computer crashed.
- People still talk about that famous footballer even though he has been almost dead for forty years.
- Being so young, most students do not know that he is an undergraduate.
- I nearly read one hundred books last year.
- You can visit Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey where famous writers, playwrights and poets are buried daily except on Sundays.
Let’s look at each of these sentences and turn them into accurate statements:
- This is saying that the restaurant was waiting for a meal. Sheesh! I thought restaurants supplied meals. The modifier needs to be correctly assigned by supplying the missing subject. While we were waiting for a meal, the restaurant became crowded.
- How the heck does a garden wear a collar, let alone a red one? Now here is an official dog dressed for the occasion: A dog wearing a red collar dug a hole in the garden.
- How interesting. The vast sky is looking at a small segment of itself. This would make more sense: Looking toward the west, we saw that the sky was red in the sunset. (The error is also called a dangling modifier or a dangling participial clause.)
- This is not surprising. I would not recommend coffee for a computer. While I was drinking my coffee, my computer crashed.
- Hold on! Almost dead? Has he been in a coma for almost forty years? Surely the modifying word is in the wrong place: People still talk about that famous footballer even though he has been dead for almost forty years.
- Are the students too young to know what an undergraduate is? This sentence needs to be rearranged to make sense: Most students do not know that he is an undergraduate as he is so young.
- How do you “nearly read”? Either you read or you don’t. The modifier needs to be moved to make my meaning clear: I read nearly one hundred books last year. Ah! That’s better. I read ninety-seven, so I can reasonably say that I read nearly one hundred books.
- Oh! How sad. With so many famous writers being buried daily, the world of literature will be greatly impoverished. This needs to be rearranged: Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where famous writers, playwrights and poets are buried, can be visited daily except on Sundays.
What are modifiers and what happens when they are misplaced?
Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that describe another word in a sentence.
Problems arise when a modifier is placed in such a way that it relates to something that is not intended by the writer or the speaker.
When this happens, it is
- an error of ignorance or an error of carelessness;
- sometimes unintentionally humorous;
- sometimes deliberately humorous, in which case the speaker or the writer is fully aware of the error and leaves it to stand for its effect on the hearer or the reader. One of the most famous instances of this is Groucho Marx’s “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” In the role of Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, he added, “How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.” (From the film Animal Crackers released in 1930.)
Avoiding misplaced modifiers
Obviously, it is necessary to eliminate these errors in formal writing and speaking.
To do so, you need to
- Be fully conscious of your usage;
- Be sure always to place the modifier that you use as close as possible to the word for which it is intended;
- Be sure to supply the modified word if you find that it is missing;
- Be on the lookout for any word or phrase or clause that is at a distance from the word that it is intended to modify as you proofread your work.
If you observe carefully, sometimes you will see misplaced modifiers in headlines and advertisements. Don’t miss the humor!
Have you ever caught yourself misplacing modifiers? If so, tell us about it. If you have had any humorous experiences with misplaced modifiers, please share them with us. Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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