According to Google’s built-in dictionary, a modifier is defined as “a word, especially an adjective or noun used attributively, that restricts or adds to the sense of a head noun (e.g., good and family in a good family house).” Basically, a modifier describes or specifies a noun in a sentence.
We use hundreds of thousands of modifiers when we write, and they are an essential part of the written word. In phrases such as “The black cat” and “The cat who jumped out the window,” the modifiers are black and who jumped out the window. Both black and who jumped out the window describe the cat and thus act as modifiers.
Now, you must be wondering, why does this matter? Why do I need to know this? Well, sometimes modifiers are used incorrectly, which can create all sorts of mayhem in your writing. We call these mistakes dangling and/or misplaced modifiers. Here are some comical examples so you can get an idea of what dangling and misplaced modifiers look like:
Example One: Flying over the African plains, magnificent lions caught their prey. (These lions are flying! That’s pretty impressive!)
Example Two: The tourists saw many chimpanzees on vacation this summer. (The chimpanzees went on vacation, huh? How peculiar!)
Example Three: Jumping and barking, I saw a golden retriever inside the forest. (Barking is a pretty strange human interaction, I daresay!)
Examples Explained: Where They Went Wrong
Now, obviously, these examples are rather ridiculous, but this type of error occurs all the time. Sometimes these mistakes are subtler, but once you learn about dangling and misplaced modifiers, oftentimes they are as obvious as the examples above. Let’s take a look at each of these examples and learn how to fix them.
Example One: This is an example of a dangling modifier. In this sentence, the biggest problem is that the speaker/main subject is implied. Rather than the lions flying over the African plains, the speaker is flying over the plains and observing the lions. The phrase “Flying over the African plains” should modify something that could actually fly, like “the people in the plane” or “Superman.” If you made this change, the corrected sentence would read, “Flying over the African plains, Superman noticed magnificent lions catching their prey.” With this correction, the sentence now makes sense.
Example Two: This sentence uses a misplaced modifier. The modifier “on vacation” is in the wrong place, which confuses the meaning of the sentence. This misplaced modifier describes “chimpanzees” instead of the actual intended recipient subject, “The tourists.” To fix this, “on vacation” should be moved closer to “The tourists.” A corrected version may look something like this: “While on vacation this summer, the tourists saw many chimpanzees.” I also decided to move “this summer,” which further improved the sentence clarity, although to a lesser degree.
Example Three: This example is another sentence with a case of dangling-modifier-syndrome. The phrase “Jumping and barking” modifies “I” instead of “the golden retriever” that the writer must have intended it to describe. In this case, the subject of “I” needs to be exchanged with the actual noun being modified, which is “the golden retriever” in this case. Here is an example of a revised sentence without the dangling modifier: “I saw the golden retriever jumping and barking inside the forest.” Notice that “jumping and barking” now modifies “golden retriever,” and so the sentence then makes perfect sense.
The Trick to Modifiers: The Correct Use of Modifiers
Thankfully, there is a trick to fixing sentences with dangling or misplaced modifiers. You may have noticed that all the corrections in the three examples above involved moving the location of the modifier in the sentence. The problem in all of these cases is that the reader mistakes the modifier as modifying the wrong part of the sentence; this is typically because the modifier is in the incorrect spot in the sentence. For instance, in the second example, “on vacation” immediately precedes “chimpanzees.” This causes the readers to think the chimpanzees are on vacation instead of the tourists. The other two examples have similar problems. So, the easiest way to correct dangling and misplaced modifiers is to ensure that the modifier is placed in the correct location. So, here’s the number one important lesson when it comes to this topic: The modifier should be closest to the thing it is modifying. If the modifier is on the other end of the sentence rather than next to the noun it is describing, you likely have a problem. So, be on the lookout for how you use modifiers in your sentences. Dangling and misplaced modifiers, despite how funny they may occasionally be, will confuse your readers and negatively impact your writing; thankfully, this is an easy fix to make once you start looking for them, and it will help take your writing to the next level.
Mackenzie Hendricks graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a Bachelor in English. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.
She enjoys reading all types of genres, but her favorites are fantasy and historical fiction. In addition to writing nonfiction and scholarly articles, she also dabbles in creative writing in her spare time.