The Mystery of the Misplaced Modifier

The Mystery of the Misplaced Modifier

Duh-dum-de-dum-de-dum… Cue the Pink Panther music! At Union Test Prep, we are looking to unravel the mystery of the misplaced modifier. We want to help prepare you to find those misplaced modifiers and bring them home where they belong.

What Is a Modifier?

First, what is a modifier? Modifiers are words or phrases that give more information or description about the main words in a sentence. Modifiers tend to be adjectives and adverbs, or phrases or clauses that use adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers, while nice to include, are not necessary to the grammatical structure of a sentence—you could take them or leave them, and the sentence would be okay. Which is not to say that modifiers should just be ignored and not used; modifiers serve an important purpose as they help bring the text alive and allow the readers to create a visual picture in their minds of what is happening in a sentence.

The problem arises when those modifiers are put in the wrong place. So, it’s not that modifiers shouldn’t be used, but that they should be put in the right place to make them as clear and effective as possible.

What Is a Misplaced Modifier?

Well then, what is a misplaced modifier and how does it get misplaced? A misplaced modifier is a descriptor or modifier that is not located close enough to the word or words it is modifying or describing. When this happens, there can be confusion for the reader as to who or what is happening in the sentence. For example:

“Mila passed an old lady racing down the sidewalk on her skateboard.”

Wait, is the old lady really on a skateboard flying down the sidewalk? It’s more likely that Mila is the one on the skateboard, but with the modifier where it is, it’s hard to tell. The sentence becomes clearer when the modifier is moved:

“Mila was racing down the sidewalk on her skateboard when she passed an old lady.”

Now it’s clear who was on the skateboard and who was passed on the sidewalk.

One more, just for good measure:

“Luke returned the shirt to the store that was ripped.”

The store probably wasn’t ripped—the shirt was. So, to clarify the sentence, move the modifier:

“Luke returned the ripped shirt to the store.”

How Can You Place a Modifier Correctly?

So where should a modifier go in a sentence? The modifier wants to be put as close as possible to the word that it modifies or describes. Really, fixing a misplaced modifier is as simple as just moving its location within a sentence. Determine the word the modifier is meant to describe and rework the sentence to reunite the two, as we did in the sentences above. Here are a few more examples, just to be sure:

Example 1:

“The beach was, by the time the sun was up, already crowded.”

This is an awkward interruption of the sentence to include the modifier. It is better written as:

“By the time the sun was up, the beach was already crowded.”

Example 2:

“Uncle Dan said after the holiday he will start a new diet.”

So, is he starting his new diet after the holiday or did he make this statement after the holiday? Try writing it one of these ways (depending on the actual intended meaning), for clarity:

“After the holiday, Uncle Dan said he will start a new diet.”

“Uncle Dan said he will start a new diet after the holiday.”

Example 3:

“Sarah handed her homework to the boy in front of her that was incomplete.”

Most likely, the boy wasn’t incomplete, but Sarah’s homework might have been. So move that modifier:

“Sarah handed her incomplete homework to the boy in front of her.”

And thus, Sherlock Student, you have cracked the code and solved the mystery of the misplaced modifier! Remember, when you’re trying to determine where to put the modifier so as to avoid confusion, put it as close as possible to the word it’s describing.

What are Misplaced Modifiers

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