Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Oh My! Misplaced Modifiers

When I find misplaced modifiers in my own writing or in others (and usually I don't see it in my own until they are pointed out to me), I giggle like a delighted toddler. Everyone makes these grammatical goofs at one time or another. You find them in books, in signs, in Powerpoint presentations, in menu descriptions... the list goes on.

So, what is a misplaced modifier? If you ask Google, this is the definition that pops up:
a phrase or clause placed awkwardly in a sentence so that it appears to modify or refer to an unintended word.
 The best way to know them is to see them. Here is one example from dictionary.com:
Tall and handsome, the people looked at him with awe and admiration. 
The way this sentence is set up, "tall and handsome" describes "people," not "him." So what can you do to fix poor misplaced modifier, so it points to "him?" Here's one solution: Because he was tall and handsome, the people looked at him with awe and admiration.

Your Dictionary.com discusses modifiers and also has some great examples. I imagine the poor misplaced modifiers in the sentences below looking anxiously at their grammatical next-door neighbors and wondering how the heck they ended up in this neighborhood! (My commentary is in italics.)
  1. Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary's presents were all picked up and admired by Mary many times throughout the course of the day. Nnnnnoooooo those presents aren't jumping up and down in impatience, sorry. Mary is the one who just can't wait.
  2. She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates. What?? Those poor children! Forced to sit on paper plates! Oh wait. The sandwiches are on the plates.
  3. She saw a puppy and a kitten on the way to the store. Wow, I wonder if that puppy and kitten are heading for the pet food aisle… Okay, "she" was going to the store, got it.  
  4. Three offices were reported robbed by the Atlanta police last week. Time out! The police robbed the offices?? I don't think so. I do believe they reported the crime though. 
 One way to fix these awkward juxtapositions is to nudge the offending phrase so it cozies up to the noun (or verb) it's modifying, and then tinker as needed:
  1. Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary picked up and admired her presents many times throughout the day. 
  2. She served the children sandwiches on paper plates.
  3. On the way to the store, she saw a puppy and a kitten. 
  4. Last week, the Atlanta police reported that three offices were robbed.
The Blood Red Pencil has addressed misplaced modifiers twice in the past. You can read about them in the post Grammar ABCs: M is for Misplaced Modifiers, and in this book review of Excuse Me, Your Participle Is Dangling!

There is also a nice little YouTube video by Georgia State University about dangling modifiers here.

For some hilarious examples—because who among us can't use a chuckle once in a while?—check out the slide show on the Scribendi article "Illustrated Misplaced Modifier Examples to Make You Smile." There is also this Ragan's PR Daily article, "Hilariously misplaced modifiers and other blunders."

I leave you with this final awkward thought:
After eating all their food, we put the dogs outside. I'm sure these poor dogs joined the cat in #3 above and they all decided to go to the shop for more food, because, well, those greedy humans! 
Why did you eat my food?? Now I have to go to the store for more!

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for “editor/writer”). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.


  1. I'm very good at misplaceed modifiers but thankfully catch them (usually) during my read-aloud editing passes. It's easier to hear them than it is to see them, at least for me. Thanks for the reminder post, Ann. I'm just starting a second read-aloud edit of my wip this week.

    1. Hi Pat! I usually count on my critique group to catch these for me, but it sounds like reading aloud is an excellent technique!

  2. This is great! And we do laugh when they are pointed out to us.

    1. Hi Heidi! Yep! And a little laughter goes a long way to bring these slips to the top of my awareness...

  3. Love this post, Ann. I've wrestled with more than a few of those smile-inspiring modifiers that have lost their way and ended up where they don't belong. As an editor, I can spot them in seconds in a client's work. In my own writing, not so much. Fortunately, I have a great critique partner who calls my attention to such misplacements. :-)

    1. Hi Linda! I, too, find it easier to catch these in work that isn't my own. I think when I read my own, I just automatically see what I "meant," not what I actually wrote. :-)

  4. Chuckle. Thanks for a ray of sunshine on a cold, dreary day.

  5. I just found one in a book by Jo Nesbo. I made a note of the page but couldn't find it again, so we all do it, even bestselling authors. Also, he doesn't use the Oxford comma, so there were other sentences that made me reread. Wish I had written them down, but I was out of town, so didn't have the pencil and paper ready. Great post.

  6. Thanks for a great post, Ann. I was horrid at putting modifiers in the right place until I started editing. I think the more we edit the easier it is to spot them, even in our own work. Still, I do rely on another editor to go through my ms before submitting it.


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