Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What is a Modifier?

When you’re writing, you’re the king of your kingdom, but your kingdom is an island. All those clues that you give and receive in everyday conversation are gone, so all of the information a person gets to understand what you’re trying to get across has to be there on the page, and it has to be ordered in a way that makes sense. You can create any kind of argument or reality that you want on the page, but it’s your responsibility to make the reader understand you, or your thoughts and feelings won’t have their intended effect. One way you can better ensure that your thoughts and feelings make sense and have their intended effects is to recognize dangling and misplaced modifiers.

So, what’s a modifier? A modifier is a word, phrase or clause that modifies (or describes) another word. So, an adjective or an adverb are modifiers because they change the meaning or add detail to another word or words — as in ‘the tin man and the cowardly lion.’ Tin and cowardly are both adjectives and modifiers. But this is English! So it’s going to get a lot trickier than that, but also funnier.

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers: A misplaced modifier, like it sounds, is a modifier that finds itself in the wrong part of the sentence. Take this:

The fisherman left his live sack of bait on the dock.

Live is the adjective modifier here, and it’s misplaced because it’s modifying the word sack, implying that the sack is alive. The intended meaning is for the bait to be live. So, the correct fix would be:

The fisherman left his sack of live bait on the dock.

Now, take this misplaced adverb modifier:

We ran from the hideous mutants we saw quickly.

So, the modifier here is quickly, but it’s in the wrong location. As it’s written, it says that you saw the mutants quickly, not the speed with which you’re running from them. To fix this modifier, put the adverb back where it makes the most sense:

We ran quickly from the hideous mutants we saw.

Likewise, entire phrases can be misplaced, creating confusion. Take this:

The gunslinger emptied onto the dusty ground the shells from his revolver.

As written, it seems like the gunslinger, rather than coolly emptying his spent shells onto the ground is instead emptying himself onto the ground. Put the modifying phrase in the right place to make him a hero again:

The gunslinger emptied the shells from his revolver onto the dusty ground.

Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers: Your teachers in the past may have accused you of writing them from time-to-time; mine certainly have. A dangling modifier is just like a misplaced modifier except that the thing it’s supposed to modify is missing! The modifier sits alone, modifying nothing, dangling its feet off the edge of a cliff.

Don’t leave it hanging! Here’s an example:

Dreaming of the future, the possibilities were limitless.

Well, that sounds really nice, but who’s dreaming here? Someone? Everyone? We don’t know, hence the modifier ‘dangles.’

Sentences with dangling modifiers often start with a gerund verb (ING word), preposition or descriptive phrase. Even professional writers do it once in a while (though they certainly don’t mean to).

Take this example from the New York Times Magazine:

If elected, Obama’s main opposition will not come from Republicans.

If elected is the modifying phrase here, but again, it appears unclear what it’s modifying. Is Obama’s main opposition getting elected? Clearly, the writer meant Obama. Here’s the simple fix:

If Obama is elected, his main opposition will not come from the Republicans.

In Real Life

In real life, not all examples of misplaced or dangling modifiers will be simple. Always ask yourself: Is the meaning of the sentence completely clear? This can be tricky because when people speak, they often make these kinds of modifier errors, and human brains are so good at picking up and understanding language that we can continue a conversation just as easily as if the error hadn’t been made at all. Most of people’s frustration with learning the nuts and bolts of composition and grammar comes from this process.

When you’re talking face-to-face with someone, you’re not only hearing the words that are coming out of their mouths, but you get additional information from their tone of voice, their facial expressions and their gestures. Plus, they exist in a certain context (your school, your home, the grocery store), and maybe you and the person even have a shared history that gives you even more possible information for understanding. All of this is going on in your background and helps lend to your understanding of sentences that might, otherwise, be confusing.

Take this sentence, which I’m sure you’ve heard before:

I just made it to class before the time-management presentation began.

This is a sentence with a misplaced modifier, but you know what it means, right? I’m telling you that I made it to the session right before it started, or before I had to do something important. But let’s look at the simple modifier here — that’s just. Modifiers modify whatever they are directly next to, in this case made. But in this context, what does just made really mean? You’re not physically constructing something. But the phrase is so common it may not feel wrong to you. Here’s the correct version:

I made it to class just before the time management presentation began.

In the first version, while you may have a sense of what it means, this version has a much clearer meaning. How soon before the presentation began? Just before – which is much clearer than whatever just made means.

Lesson Summary

To recap:

– A modifier is a word, phrase or clause that modifies (or describes) another word.

Misplaced modifiers are modifiers that point to the wrong part of the sentence, changing its meaning from what you intend it to mean to something else.

Dangling modifiers are modifiers where the thing that it’s supposed to modify is gone!

– When evaluating a sentence for its modifiers, remember to ask yourself: ‘Is the sentence completely clear?’ and double-check that all of your modifiers modify something and modify the right thing.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define modifier
  • Define misplaced modifier and dangling modifier, and understand how to fix them
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