Misplaced Modifier

Misplaced Modifiers

A misplaced modifier is a word (or group of words) that does not clearly link to what it is intended to modify. A misplaced modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous or wrong.

Easy Examples of Misplaced Modifiers

  • Lee only eats cakes.
  • (This is ambiguous if the intended meaning is Lee eats nothing but cakes. This could mean Lee does not do other things to cakes, e.g., bake them. Be careful with the word only, which is a type of limiting modifier.)
  • Talking quickly annoys people.
  • (This is ambiguous because we cannot be sure if quickly applies to talking or annoys people. This called a squinting modifier.)
  • Having read your letter, my parrot has since died.
  • (This is wrong because Having read your letter does not apply to anything in the sentence. This is called a dangling modifier.)

Real-Life Examples of Misplaced Modifiers

  • We will not sell paraffin to anyone in glass bottles.
  • (Often, common sense tells us what the writer meant. Clearly, this is about paraffin in glass bottles not people in glass bottles. However, placing your modifier too far away from the thing being modified will do little to showcase your writing skills.)
  • Andrew said after the holiday he intends to stop drinking.
  • (Here, it is unclear whether Andrew made this statement after the holiday or whether he intends to stop drinking after the holiday.)
  • Meticulous and punctual, her work ethic is admirable.
  • (Here, the modifier does not apply to anything in the sentence.)

Why Should I Care about Misplaced Modifiers?

A misplaced modifier makes your sentence ambiguous or wrong. You can avoid a misplaced modifier by placing your modifier next to whatever it's modifying (or putting some distance between the modifier and whatever it's not meant to be modifying). Let's fix the examples above. In these fixed examples, the text being modified is in bold.
  • Lee eats only cakes.
  • We will not sell paraffin in glass bottles to anyone.
  • (These have been fixed by moving the modifiers next to the words they modify.)
  • Talking quickly is a sure way to annoy people.
  • After the holiday, Andrew said that he intends to stop drinking.
  • (These have been fixed by rewording the sentences and putting some distance between the modifiers and the next that is not being modified.)
  • Having read your letter, I would like to inform you that my parrot has since died.
  • Meticulous and punctual, Jill has an admirable work ethic.
  • (These have been fixed by introducing the thing being modified into the sentence. Remember, they were missing from the originals.)
Now look at the two examples. They are both correct, but they have very different meanings.
  • He lost nearly $5,000 in Las Vegas.
  • (This means he lost just under $5,000.)
  • He nearly lost $5,000 in Las Vegas.
  • (Here, we don't know how much he lost. He might have lost nothing at all.)
You must make your meaning clear by putting your modifier next to whatever is being modified.

Probably the most famous example of a misplaced modifier turns out not to be a misplaced modifier at all.
  • One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know. (Writer and comedian Groucho Marx)
  • (This is not a misplaced modifier because the elephant was actually in his pyjamas.)
Here is a great example of a misplaced modifier from the film Hot Fuzz:
  • "He was a hero at his last police station. He once shot a robber with a Kalashnikov."
    "Great, where did he get that?"
    "No, the robber had the Kalashnikov."
NB: It is sometimes difficult for writers to spot their own misplaced modifiers because they know what they meant to say, and they do not see the ambiguity. This is called author blindness.

Key Point

Put your modifier next to the text it's supposed to be modifying and keep it away from any other text that it could feasibly be modifying.
Home Page Mathematics Monster Cyber Definitions Grammar Monster