Ah, misplaced modifiers. They produce some of the most amusing grammar errors. Alas, we seek clarity, not just humor. So unless you’re using misplaced modifiers for intentional comedic effect, you need to relocate those lost modifiers.
What Is a Misplaced Modifier?
Misplaced modifiers modify something in the sentence—they just haven’t been placed in the right spot. Here’s an example of a misplaced modifier Groucho Marx used as a joke.
“One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
Misplaced modifiers are frequently used intentionally for comedic effect—as Groucho Marx did with the above example. But sentences that contain accidental misplaced modifiers can be misleading, awkward, confusing or just downright alarming.
For example, what does the following sentence mean?
People who cry rarely are happy.
Are the people crying rarely, or are they rarely happy? Because this modifier is misplaced, we can’t be sure.
What Makes a Modifier Misplaced?
What exactly makes a misplaced modifier “misplaced”? Languages like English frequently use proximity to determine the relationship between ideas. To understand this, take another look at the Groucho Marx example. Readers will naturally assume that phrases like “in my pajamas” modify the closest noun or noun phrase—which in this case is “elephant,” not “I.”
How Do You Fix Misplaced Modifiers?
As you’re proofreading your own writing, make sure that modifiers are as close to the word that they modify as possible (and far away from words they don’t but could seem to modify). If you find any misplaced modifiers, move them to where they belong.
Let’s illustrate this using the “People who cry rarely are happy” example:
People who rarely cry are happy.
People who cry are rarely happy.
Because there were two possible ways to interpret the sentence, there are two possible ways to fix the misplaced modifier, depending on what the intended meaning of the sentence is. In both versions, moving “rarely” to be before the word it’s modifying makes the meaning of the sentence clear.
When sentences get longer and more complex, it’s even easier to accidentally misplace a modifier:
On my way to work, I saw an accident driving down the freeway.
Since the accident wasn’t driving down the freeway, “driving down the freeway” is misplaced. If we flip the sentence around, we can solve this problem:
Driving down the freeway, I saw an accident on my way to work.
If you’re revising your own work and you’re not sure whether a word or phrase is a modifier, let alone if it’s misplaced, use the deletion test. If you can delete the entire phrase and the sentence would still make sense, the phrase is a modifier. The above example, “On my way to work, I saw an accident” makes perfect sense without the last phrase—”driving down the freeway” just provides extra information, so it’s a modifier (as is “on my way to work,” which modifies the entire clause “I saw an accident.”).
Misplaced modifiers are the kind of mistakes you save and pull out for a good laugh. More often than not, you get in a writing groove, and misplaced modifiers accidentally topple out while you’re spewing forth genius ideas. When you edit, try reading your piece aloud. It’s an easy way to catch lost modifiers.
Seen any hilarious misplaced modifiers lately? Please share them below!