Misbehaving Modifiers

When we write, we naturally use modifiers to add clarification or color. Modifiers are descriptive words like adjectives or adverbs. They can also be phrases or clauses. Modifiers “modify”—or add an explanation to—the other words in a sentence. But sometimes modifiers are used in ways that don’t work (and can even be humorous). Let’s learn how to spot and correct misbehaving modifiers! 🙂

1. Let’s see how modifiers add pertinent information to key parts of a sentence.

Adjectives add information to the subject or noun. (In the following examples, the subject is gelato.)

Adjective: I bought a pint of raspberry gelato.
Adjective phrase: I put the gelato sitting on the counter in the freezer.
Adjective clause: The gelato that I bought at the fair is delicious.

Adverbs add information to the action or verb. (In the following examples, the action is jogged.)

Adverb: Lex awkwardly jogged on the beach.
Adverb phrase: Lex jogged on the beach in a crooked pattern.
Abverb clause: Lex awkwardly jogged on the beach because he sprained his ankle.

Limiting modifiers specify—or limit—the extent of a subject or action.
Limiting modifiers: (just, almost, hardly, simply, always, barely, only)

Only Jasper hiked up the mountain. (Jasper was the only person to hike up the mountain.)
Jasper only hiked up the mountain. (Jasper hiked up the mountain but did not hike anywhere else.)

The contestant nearly won $50,000 on the game show. (The contestant didn’t win.)
The contestant won nearly $50,000 on the game show. (The contestant won a little less than $50,000.

2. Now let’s look at different types of misbehaving modifiers!

* Misplaced modifier: This modifier is in the wrong place in a sentence. That makes it read as though the modifier is describing the wrong thing.

[Incorrect] The hostess served dessert to the guests on expensive china.
(Oops! The guests are not on expensive china—the dessert is. Move the modifying phrase next to the word it modifies.)

[Correct] The hostess served the guests dessert on expensive china.

[Incorrect]  James bought a horse for his son Bud named Wiser.
(Is the son named Bud Wiser? That’s how the sentence reads. Move the modifying phrase next to the word it modifies.)

[Correct] James bought a horse named Wiser for his son Bud.

* Dangling modifier: This modifier refers to the wrong thing, so the reader is left “dangling.”

[Incorrect] Diving into the water, the drowning kitten was rescued.
(It reads as though the kitten was diving into the water when actually it was drowning.)

[Correct] Diving into the water, Kiera rescued the drowning kitten.

[Incorrect] Horrified, the baton slipped out of the relay runner’s sweaty fingers.
(This reads as though the baton is horrified.)

[Correct] Horrified, the relay runner felt the baton slip out of his sweaty fingers.

* Squinting modifier: The meaning of the modifier is ambiguous.

[Incorrect] Stopping to think clearly improves communication.
(It’s unclear whether the writer means “thinking clearly” or “clearly improves communication.”)

[Correct] Stopping to think clearly before you speak improves communication.
[Correct] Stopping to think before you speak clearly improves communication.

[Incorrect] Grandma told us eventually we would inherit her old house when she passed away.
(Did Grandma eventually tell us about the inheritance, or did Grandma tell us we would eventually inherit the house?)

[Correct] Grandma eventually told us that we would inherit her old house when she passed away.
[Correct] Grandma told us that eventually we would inherit her old house when she passed away.

* Impossible modifier: This happens when the modifier is used in an impossible way.

[Incorrect] Rolling her eyes, she glared at him.
(Her eyes are either rolling or glaring, but not both.)

[Correct] She rolled her eyes, then glared at him.

[Incorrect] Reaching for the rope, the boy climbed up to the tree house.
(He can’t reach and climb at the same time.)

[Correct] The boy reached for the rope, then climbed up to the tree house.

Savvy Writer Tip:

Modifiers are wonderful descriptors that give readers a clear visual. However, if they are used incorrectly, they can be confusing, awkward, even amusing. Make sure your modifiers aren’t misplaced, don’t dangle, stop squinting, and aren’t impossible. Savvy writers know how to use modifiers correctly! 🙂