A misplaced modifier is a word or phrase placed incorrectly in a sentence so that it appears to modify the wrong word. Generally speaking, a modifier should be as close as possible to the word it’s modifying to avoid confusion. For example:
“While walking down the street after it rained, I saw a soggy child’s book lying on the sidewalk.”
While both “soggy” and “child’s” are modifiers to “book,” “child’s” is a noun so it looks like “soggy” is modifying it and not “book.” To fix this, put the adjective “soggy” next to “book” and it won’t sound like the book belonged to a soggy child.
“While walking down the street after it rained, I saw a child’s soggy book lying on the sidewalk.”
Here’s an example of a misplaced modifying phrase:
“Tired of being last all the time, my delight at finally winning a race showed all over my face – even if there was only one other person in my age group.”
Can you find it? hint: the modifier is everything before the comma. The word that it’s modifying is the noun closest to it. Since delight is a feeling and incapable of having other feelings, this sentence actually makes no sense. Here’s a better way to word it:
“Tired of being last all the time, I was delighted to finally win a race – even if I was the only person in my age group.”
Now the phrase at the beginning of the sentence is modifying “I.”
A common approach that leads to misplaced modifiers is that of using the passive voice. For example, when you change the following sentence from passive to active voice, the misplaced modifier fixes itself. This is something you should always check for in your writing as it can be easy to overlook.
“Eagerly awaiting ice cream, the picnic table was climbed on by the group of rowdy children.”
Sounds like the picnic table is eager for some ice cream. What?
This is better:
“Eagerly awaiting ice cream, the rowdy children climbed on the picnic table.”
See how by using the active voice, I made the sentence easier to understand and fixed the misplaced modifier at the same time?
This wraps up my three-week series on common modifier mistakes. Check out the other two posts here and here. And remember to always watch out for squinting, dangling and misplaced modifiers in your writing!