Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

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Dangling Modifier

A dangling modifier is one that modifies a word or phrase not clearly stated in the sentence; in other words, dangling modifiers only suggest, but do not name, the thing they modify. Phrases and clauses with dangling modifiers do not have expressed subjects. Consequently, readers expect them to modify the following noun or noun phrase. Because they do not do so, they are considered dangling modifiers.

Original:

Hurrying to work, my mom called me on the phone.

Trying to muster my courage, the boss told me not to quit.

To correct such modifiers, rewrite them, and include the subject that is missing. Notice below how the preceding examples are recast so that they no longer contain dangling modifiers.

Revised:

As I was hurrying to work, my mom called me on the phone.

While I was trying to muster my courage, the boss told me not to quit.

Misplaced Modifiers

A misplaced modifier is one that modifies the wrong part of a sentence. Sentences that contain misplaced modifiers can be awkward, ambiguous, or even confusing.

Original:

I drank a hot cup of cocoa after dinner.

The broken employee’s laptop sat useless on the desk.

To fix a misplaced modifier, reword the sentence so that the modifier is in a position to clearly modify the intended word or phrase.

Revised:

I drank a cup of hot cocoa after dinner.

The employee’s broken laptop sat useless on the desk.

Some of the most commonly misplaced modifiers are limiting modifiers. Limiting modifiers, such as only, not, just, merely, hardly, exactly, even, and almost, are meant to modify only the words or phrases that follow directly after them. Compare the meaning of the following sentences:

Example:

Only he talks to me.

He only talks to me.

He talks only to me.

In casual speech or writing the limiting modifier often does not come directly before the word or phrase it modifies. However, in formal writing, the modifier should come directly before the word or phrase it modifies in order to avoid possible ambiguity.

Not:

The directors only met with each other on Fridays. (Ambiguous)

But:

Only the directors met with each other on Fridays. (Unambiguous)

The directors met only with each other on Fridays. (Unambiguous)

The directors met with each other only on Fridays. (Unambiguous)

Sometimes more information must be added to make the meaning of a sentence clear.

Not:

The manager just hired young executives.

But:

The manager just hired young executives while he worked here.

The manager just [or recently] hired five young executives.

Also, try to put long modifiers at the beginning or end of the sentence so as not to disrupt the flow of a sentence. Such constructions are generally clearer.

Not:

The managers of the department usually, before they make a very important decision, ask the opinions of the members of their team.

A new employee generally, after he or she has been working for about three months, has a short meeting with the manager to discuss how things are going.

But:

Before they make a very important decision, the managers of the department usually ask the opinions of the members of their team.

After a new employee has been working for about three months, he or she generally has a short meeting with the manager to discuss how things are going.

In addition, it is often a good idea to avoid placing modifiers between a verb and its object.

Not:

The children discussed loudly their plans.

Fran read intently her book.

But:

The children loudly discussed their plans.

Fran intently read her book.

Nor is it a good idea to use a long or complex modifier between the word to and the verb that forms an infinitive (such as to eat).

Not:

The candidate planned to without any difficulty win the election.

We hoped to for our problem find a good solution.

But:

The candidate planned to win the election without any difficulty.

We hoped to find a good solution to our problem.

Squinting Modifiers

A squinting modifier is one that could modify either the word that precedes it or the word that follows it. However, a modifier can modify only one word at a time, so sentences containing squinting modifiers should be rewritten.

Not:

Our human resource representatives who work here often hire new employees.

The meetings held on Tuesdays usually run long.

But:

Our human resource representatives who work here hire new employees often.

Our human resource representatives, who work here often, hire new employees. (The modifier can not be moved in this second example, but by using commas for this construct, we clearly show which part of the sentence is meant to be modified.)

The meetings held on Tuesdays run long usually.

The meetings held usually on Tuesdays run long.

When an adverb modifies the entire clause or sentence, then the modifying adverb can generally be moved to the beginning of the sentence, as well.

Examples:

Often, our human resource representatives who work here hire new employees.

Usually, the meetings held on Tuesdays run long.

Note: Of course, some of the sentence orders above seem more natural than others, so as long as the modifier is in a correct location, just use your best judgment when constructing your sentences.

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