We often use words or phrases to describe words within sentences, and we determine the meaning of sentences by placing these descriptives next to the words they point to or "modify."
A modifier is a word or a phrase that describes something else. You should place it as close as possible to what it describes.
Sometimes we are careless and place descriptive phrases away from the words they modify, making our sentences unclear or inaccurate. These phrases are called misplaced modifiers. Be aware of misplaced modifiers that allow for unintended (and often humorous) interpretations. Consider the following:
- Here are some helpful suggestions for protecting your valuables from our hotel security staff.
- The young girl was walking the dog in the short skirt.
- The dog was chasing the boy with the spiked collar.
In these examples it is easy to see what went wrong. The security staff are not thieves, the dog isn't wearing a short skirt, and the boy probably doesn't have a spiked collar. Because the modifier is misplaced, we need to think for a second before we understand the intended meaning. The correct versions are:
- Here are some helpful suggestions from our hotel security staff for protecting your valuables.
- The young girl in the short skirt was walking the dog.
- The dog with the spiked collar was chasing the boy.
See how the proper placement clarifies the meaning? (You might be surprised to find out how often we make corrections just like these in everyday writing, such as white papers, brochures, and proposals!) By placing the modifiers correctly you can eliminate the possibility that your reader will misunderstand, and you'll have a better chance of getting your point across.
Sources: Gregg Reference Manual, and the Web.