Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers are useful words that help add information about other parts of a sentence. But if they’re used incorrectly, they can lead to confusion…and sometimes hilarity.

Misplaced modifiers

Misplaced modifiers can slip into anyone’s writing. I know I’ve included the odd weirdly placed modifier in my own writing from time to time. When you read a sentence with a misplaced modifier, you think you probably understand what the writer meant, but you’re not 100% sure. You do a mental double take and ask yourself, Is that what the writer really meant?

What is a misplaced modifier?

To understand what a misplaced modifier is, you need to know that a modifier is a word that adds meaning to another part of a sentence. So, a modifier is ‘misplaced’ if its position in that sentence causes confusion.

Let’s look at some examples.

Have you ever read senetences like these?

  1. The recommendations will solve all the problems in this report.
  2. Watching carefully, the leaves began to rustle.
  3. At the school fundraser, we served sausages to hungry customers in bread.

Modifiers must make sense

In sentence 1, the reader is left wondering what the word problems relates to. Does it relate to the report itself or does it relate to the the recommendations in the report?

This is because report and problems are placed quite close to each other, so it sounds as if the report is full of problems. While that’s possible, it’s probably not what the author meant.

They probably meant The recommendations in this report will solve all the problems.

If we look at sentence 2, it sounds as if the leaves were watching carefully before they began to rustle. Of course, it’s possible that if this were a horror movie about sentient trees, the leaves might be watching. But my guess is that someone else was watching the tree and saw the leaves move.

So, this sentence should be written, Watching carefully, I (or they) saw the leaves begin to rustle.

Now, sentence 3 just makes me laugh.

I imagine that the hungry customers were wrapped in huge slices of bread at the sausage sizzle and that the fundraising people were handing them sausages.

A much better (although less funny) way to write this sentence would be, At the school fundraser, we served sausages in bread to hungry customers.

So, next time you find yourself wondering what on earth a writer meant, take a moment to consider if they’re misplaced their modifier in some way. The same goes for your own writing. If your readers are telling you they’re confused by your writing, take a quick look at any modifiers you’ve used and see if you can move them to make the meaning of the sentence clearer.

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