Misplaced Modifiers

Syntax and word order are especially important in the English language. Unlike many other languages, an incorrectly placed word or phrase can completely change the meaning of a sentence. One of the most commonly misplaced parts of English speech and writing is the modifier. Because of the relatively informal nature of modern English, native and non-native speakers are equally susceptible to this grammar error. Misplaced modifiers cause confusion in everyday conversation and can result in incorrect answers on standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, and TOEFL.

What is a Modifier?

A modifier is any word or phrase that describes (modifies) another word/phrase. In English, modifiers should be placed as close to the word(s) that they modify as possible:

On his way home, Marcus found a woman’s diamond ring.

A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifier is separately by other words from the word(s) that it modifies:

On his way home, Marcus found a diamond woman’s ring.

Taken literally, this misplaced modifier means that Marcus found a ring that belongs to a woman who is made of diamonds. Misplaced modifiers can be difficult to spot for two reasons. First, native English speakers routinely use them in everyday conversation. Second, native speakers are used to this misuse and are therefore conditioned to automatically correct for what a misplaced modified “really” refers to.  Take care that your modifiers actually mean what you intend, and don’t assume that a native English speaker is using a modifier correctly.

Types of Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced adjectives are incorrectly separated from the nouns that they modify. This type of misplaced modifier almost always distorts the meaning of a sentence:

Suzie ate a hot bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.

This literally means that the bowl itself was hot, not the oatmeal that it contained. To correct for this, we need to place “hot” as close to “oatmeal” as possible:

Suzie ate a bowl of hot oatmeal for breakfast.

Now it’s clear that the oatmeal that Suzie ate, not the bowl it was placed in, was hot.
The placement of adverbs can also change meaning of a sentence. Be especially careful with only, just, nearly, merely, and almost. Shifting the placement of these key adverbs almost always changes the meaning of a sentence. Consider the location of just in the following three examples:

Just Mira was picked to lead the development team.
Mira was the only person chosen to lead the team.

Mira was just picked to lead the development team.
Mira was only recently chosen to lead the team.

Mira was picked to lead just the development team.
Heading up the development team was the only leadership position that Mira was chosen for.

Sometimes a misplaced adverb can result in an unintentionally comical sentence:

Already late for a meeting, Jim ate the lunch that he had brought quickly.

“Quickly” is meant to refer to the speed with which Jim ate his lunch. As it is written now, the sentence means that the delivery time for Jim’s lunch was exceedingly fast. In order to preserve the intended meaning, “quickly” should be placed next to “ate.”

Already late for a meeting, Jim quickly ate the lunch that he had brought.

Most of the time, a misplaced modifier or clause simply causes a sentence to sound awkward and to not make logical sense:

The realtor sold the house to the young couple with the pool.

Does the “young couple” already have a pool? If not, this sentence needs to be reordered:

The realtor sold the house with the pool to the young couple.

Now it’s clear that the “house,” not the “young couple,” comes with a pool.

Clawing at the drapes, Marie sprayed her cat with the water bottle.

Unless Marie was the one who was clawing at the drapes, this modifier needs to be moved closer to the actual culprit:

Marie sprayed her cat, which was clawing at the drapes, with the water bottle.
Marie sprayed her cat with the water bottle because it was clawing at the drapes.

Both of these revisions are equally correct, albeit for different reasons. The first revision places “clawing” as close to “cat” as possible, allowing for no ambiguity about who or what was doing the clawing. The second revision establishes a clear cause-effect relationship between the cat clawing at the drapes and Marie squirting water at the cat.