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Avoid Misplaced Modifiers—Or Confuse Your Readers

One writing gaffe to be aware of is misplaced modifiers, which are sometimes called dangling modifiers. If your work inadvertently includes them, you’re sure to leave your readers scratching their heads, or worse, deciding they’re not going to try to figure out what you mean and put your story or book aside.

Let’s back up a step and define modifiers. They are words or phrases that change or alter other words or phrases. In the sentence “Bob saw the tall, blond, attractive woman approaching” the words tall, blond, and attractive all modify woman. Misplaced modifiers happened when readers get mixed up about which noun or pronoun is being modified, as in this example:

     Tall, blond, and attractive, Bob saw the woman approaching.

We would think that Bob was the tall, blond, and attractive one, instead of that description applying to the woman.

In some cases, misplaced modifiers are obvious, as in this example:

     Sarah drove to Florida in an SUV that was under a hurricane watch.

Florida, not the SUV, was under a hurricane watch, so we’d write:

     Sarah drove to Florida, which was under a hurricane watch, in an SUV.

Other misplaced modifiers may be ambiguous.

     The hungry bear’s cubs broke into the cabin.

Apparently, the bear is hungry. But then why did the cubs break into the cabin? Or was it the cubs who were hungry?

So let’s edit the sentence to remove ambiguity.

     The bear’s hungry cubs broke into the cabin.

Misplaced modifiers often, but not always, appear at the beginning of sentences. A simple rule to help avoid them is to put the modifier as close as possible to the word or phrase it’s modifying, as in the above sentence. By moving hungry closer to the word it’s intended to modify, cubs, the sentence is clear.

Here is some practice in correcting misplaced modifiers. How would you correct these sentences?

1. The president said inflation was out of control during his news conference.

2. The candidate said he earned a master’s degree during the interview.


1. Inflation wasn’t only out of control during the news conference, as the sentence implies. Our edit should be:

     During his news conference, the president said inflation was out of control.

2. This is an easy one to correct.

     During the interview, the candidate said he earned a master’s degree.

As further examples of how misplaced modifiers may change the meaning, consider these sentences. The placement of the word only results in different meanings in each sentence. The information in parentheses explains what the sentences appear to mean.

     Only I contributed to this project. (No one else contributed.)

     I only contributed to this project. (I didn’t have a major role.)

     I contributed only to this project. (I didn’t contribute to any other project.)

One oddity I’ve observed about misplaced modifiers is that even good writers may not realize that they’ve crept in. It’s obvious to the writer what she meant, right? But it might not be so clear to the reader. Having someone else read your work for clarity will help you avoid this pitfall.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski