Modifier Placement

Definition

Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that modify, or alter, the meaning of other words or phrases in a sentence. Where you insert a modifying word or phrase in a sentence can clarify your meaning or complicate your meaning. Placement of modifiers, therefore, is very important to ensure that your sentence is saying what you intend it to say. Your goal should be to place modifiers as close to the word or words they are modifying as possible. There are three main types of modifiers: dangling, misplaced, and squinting.

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Dangling Modifiers

Dangling Modifiers with Participial Phrases

Dangling modifiers most often relate to participial phrases that improperly modify the remainder of the sentence. When you begin a sentence with such a phrase, you must make sure the next thing that comes along can, in fact, be modified by that modifier. For instance, in the example below, the participial phrase is changing the oil every 3,000 km.

  • Changing the oil every 3,000 km, the car seemed to run better.

The clause that follows this phrase must begin with a subject that is capable of performing the action described. To determine whether this is the case, ask yourself, “Who or what is changing the oil every 3,000 km?” According to the sentence above, the car is changing its own oil. Since a car can’t change its own oil, the sentence contains a dangling modifier.

To correct this modifier error, you must insert a proper subject, capable of performing the action, immediately after the participial phrase. Consider the correction below:

  • Changing the oil every 3,000 km, Fred found he could get much better gas mileage.

Now it is clear that Fred is changing the oil every 3,000 km. Since Fred is a person capable of doing this, the sentence no longer contains a dangling modifier.

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Dangling Modifiers with Descriptive Words/Phrases

Dangling modifiers often add description. Your goal is to make sure that they describe the correct thing(s). Sentences that begin with a dependent word or clause are hallmarks of sentences that include dangling modifiers.

Consider the following sentence:

  • Thirsty, the soft drink was consumed in ten seconds.

The word thirsty is describing something or someone. Ask yourself, “Who was thirsty?”  For this sentence to be correct, the subject who was thirsty should appear immediately next to the word thirsty. According to this sentence, the soft drink was thirsty. Since it’s impossible for a soft drink to be thirsty, this sentence contains a dangling modifier error.

  • Thirsty, Janelle drank the soft drink in ten seconds.

This sentence no longer contains a modifier error because the modifier is next to the proper subject: Janelle.

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Dangling Modifiers with Expletives

Following a participial phrase with an expletive construction also leads to dangling modifier errors. Expletives are words that take the place of a subject that usually appears later on in the sentence. Expletives are not real subjects themselves, as they carry no real meaning or significance. The words it and there are common expletives used to replace subjects in sentences. Consider the example below:

  • Changing the oil every 3,000 km, there is an easy way to keep your car running smoothly.

According to the sentence above, there is changing the oil every 3,000 km. This is a confusing construction, and it can be remedied by inserting a clear subject into the sentence after the participial phrase or by changing the participial phrase into a full-fledged clause with a subject and verb as indicated below:

  • Changing the oil every 3,000 km, we can keep the car in excellent condition.
  • If we change the oil every 3,000 km, we can keep our car running smoothly.

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Dangling Modifiers with Passive Verbs

A participial phrase followed by a passive verb is also apt to be a dangler because the real actor of the sentence will be disguised.

Dangling Modifier with Passive Verb

Changing the oil every 3,000 km, the car was kept in excellent condition.

Correction

Changing the oil every 3,000 km, we kept the car in excellent condition.

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Dangling Modifiers with Infinitive Phrases

An infinitive phrase can also dangle. The infinitive phrase below should probably modify the person(s) who set up the exercise program to ensure clarity.

Dangling Modifier with Infinitive Phrase

To keep the young recruits interested in getting in shape, an exercise program was set up for the summer months.

According to the sentence above, an exercise program wanted to keep the young recruits interested. Since an inanimate item such as an exercise program cannot have such interests, you must replace it with someone who, or something  that, can. In the sentence below, the error is corrected:

Correction

To keep the young recruits interested in getting in shape, the coaching staff set up an exercise program for the summer months.

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Misplaced Modifier

Misplaced modifiers are words that modify information in a sentence in a way that is unclear or inappropriate. Where you place these words in your sentence makes all the difference. Some such modifiers, especially words such as only, just, nearly, and barely, have a bad habit of slipping into the wrong place in a sentence. You want your modifiers to be next to the word(s) or phrase(s) they are intended to modify.

Consider the example below:

  • He barely kicked the ball twenty meters.

The word barely is acting as a modifier in this sentence, but what is it modifying? According to the sentence above, it is modifying the way he kicked the ball. It is modifying the strength of the verb in the sentence. Ask yourself, what does it mean to barely kick something?  If you barely kick a ball, is it likely that the ball will travel twenty meters? More probable is that the word barely is intended to modify the distance that the ball was kicked. To express that clearly to the reader, you must place the word barely beside what it is modifying. Consider the correction below:

  • He kicked the ball barely twenty meters.

Now, the modifier is modifying the distance that he kicked the ball. The sentence now makes sense.

Here is another example using the word only as the modifier:

  • I only gave him three dollars.

How do you only give someone something? What does that look like?  The issue of the proper placement of only has long been argued among grammarians. Some grammarians have argued that there is no danger of misreading I only gave him three dollars and that only can safely and naturally be placed between the subject and the verb. However, others insist that that only be placed immediately before the word or phrase it modifies. The example below is more precise, placing the modifier directly before the word or phrase it is modifying. It is clear that it is the amount of money given to him that is being modified.

  • I gave him only three dollars.

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Squinting Modifier

A third problem in modifier placement is the squinting modifier. This is an unfortunate result of an adverb’s ability to pop up almost anywhere in a sentence; structurally, the adverb may function well, but its meaning can be obscure or ambiguous. For instance, in the sentence below, do the students seek advice frequently or can they frequently improve their grades by seeking advice? You can’t tell from that sentence because the adverb often is “squinting” (you can’t tell which way it’s looking). Let’s try placing the adverb elsewhere.

Confusion

Students who seek their instructors’ advice often can improve their grades.

Repair Work

Students who often seek their instructors’ advice can improve their grades.

Repair Work

Students who seek their instructors’ advice can often improve their grades.

As indicated in the examples above, the placement of the modifier can alter the meaning of the sentence. To produce clear writing, always ensure that your modifiers are modifying the words or phrases you intend.

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Exercises

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