Keep it Together: Misplaced Modifiers

Elephants wearing pants

Elephants wearing clothes? That’s just silly! But that’s the sort of thing that can be implied with a misplaced modifier.
Photo by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget (Flickr)

“One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

This famous, funny quote by Groucho Marx neatly sums up the problem of misplaced modifiers. When you’re adding a little bit of detail to a sentence, a modifier that describes something you’re talking about, it’s all too easy to confuse the reader when you put the modifier in the wrong place.

Ideally, you want to put the modifier as close as possible to the word or phrase it’s modifying. Consider this sentence:

“John saw an emu on the way to the store.”

Who was on the way to the store? “Emu” is closer to “on the way to the store”: The reader couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the emu was headed to the store when John saw it. What the writer meant, of course, was “On the way to the store, John saw an emu.” Here, the modifier “on the way to the store” is closest to and describes “John.”

Let’s look at another one:

“At the age of three, my mother taught me to read.”

If my mother was three… how was she teaching me to read? And how was I even born yet, for that matter? This needs a rewrite: “When I was three, my mother taught me to read.”

Don’t Leave Them Hanging

You might have heard the phrase “dangling modifier” thrown around before, but what is a dangling modifier? It’s simple: A danging modifier is a word or phrase that’s trying to describe something that’s not even contained in the sentence. Take this example:

“Running down the path, the sun was shining brightly.”

The sun can’t run, of course, but it’s the only thing that “running down the path” could be modifying here. There’s something else being described as “running,” but whatever it is isn’t in the sentence, leaving the reader in confusion. Perhaps it should have been “As I was running down the path, the sun was shining brightly.” We don’t really know who or what was doing the running; as a freelance writer, you need to make sure that the subject of a modifier is always clear.

Mindy Young, an editor for Online Writing Jobs, got her start as a newspaper copy editor after earning her B.A. from Russell Sage College in Troy, NY. She spent nearly 13 years editing stories, writing headlines, and putting together pages for daily newspapers, and along the way, she also had the opportunity to write food columns and restaurant reviews. After earning a pair of Associated Press awards and a Suburban Newspaper Association award, she left journalism for the world of content marketing, where she puts her skills to work every day for OWJ clients and writers.

Apply Now

Share this post:
Posted in Writing Tips