When it comes to writing, sometimes our brains fill in the gaps between what we mean and what we say, which means that we might be totally oblivious to problems that seem to stick out like a sore thumb to our readers.
Two great examples of this issue are misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers. We use them so often in our speech that it’s no wonder they pop up in our writing on occasion, but it would be best for everyone if we all learned how to spot them and fix them so that we cause as little confusion as possible.
Modifiers are words or phrases that modify an adjacent word in a sentence by changing, limiting, or clarifying the meaning of that word. The modifiers that are perhaps easiest to recognize are simple adjectives (“big,” “green,” “muscular”) and adverbs (“quickly,” “almost,” “only”).
It follows, then, that misplaced modifiers are these words or phrases that have been stuck somewhere they shouldn’t be, resulting in a sentence with a meaning that has been altered (sometimes hilariously so).
For example, check out this sentence:
“On her way home, Natasha found a gold man’s watch.”
The sentence makes it sound like Natasha found a watch that belongs to a gold man. To fix it, we need to move the modifier so it’s next to the thing it’s truly modifying: “On her way home, Natasha found a man’s gold watch.” Now there’s no question about what’s going on.
Misplaced modifiers that are only one word (whether they are adjectives, as in the previous example, or adverbs, such as just, only, and almost) are pretty easy to relocate. However, modifiers that are phrases may require a little more work:
“Steve ate a cookie in pajamas.”
This structure makes it sound like the cookie is wearing pajamas. To fix it, you could try one of the following solutions: “Steve, who was in his pajamas, ate a cookie.” Or, “Steve ate a cookie while he was in his pajamas.”
Once you’ve got a good grasp on misplaced modifiers, it’s time to progress to dangling modifiers, which are the next step up.
Dangling modifiers can be just as sneaky as misplaced modifiers, and they’re usually harder to fix. This kind of modifier is “dangling” because it doesn’t have a clear relationship to the thing it’s modifying—it’s just hanging out in its sentence, all alone, but trying its best to make some kind of sense.
Here’s an example:
“Looking up at the sky, a bolt of lightning struck his hammer.”
Based on how this sentence is structured, it sounds like the bolt of lightning was looking up at the sky. However, we can guess that isn’t the intended meaning. Simply moving the modifier won’t be enough to fix the sentence, though, because the subject we are looking for doesn’t even exist in the sentence. That means that it needs to be rewritten to read something like this:
“While Thor was looking up at the sky, a bolt of lightning struck his hammer.”
And here’s another example for good measure:
“After showing his ID, the gate opened for Tony.”
Since we can guess that the gate wasn’t showing an ID, we know the sentence needs to be changed: “After Tony showed his ID, the gate opened for him.”
When you are in doubt about a modifier, you should always look at the word immediately following it. Do the two logically go together? If not, move words around or rewrite a bit until the sentence is more clear so that your readers don’t have to do mental gymnastics to understand you.
Modifiers can be tricky to work with sometimes, but knowing how to use them and when to laugh at them will pay off in the end.