Alison watched her son drive off through the window.
David waited patiently behind a teenager with baggy jeans carrying a full load.
The homeowner chased the intruder wearing nothing but his underwear.
All these sentences contain misplaced modifiers — descriptive words or phrases that are separated from the noun or pronoun they describe. Although they’re good for an occasional chuckle (or, in some cases, a hearty belly laugh), misplaced modifiers can make sentences confusing or awkward and obscure meaning, as in the examples above.
Unlike dangling modifiers, which typically appear at the beginning of sentences, misplaced modifiers can crop up anywhere. Here, we look at the different types of misplaced modifiers and how to correct them, which most often involves moving the modifier next to the word or phrase it describes.
Misplaced subjects often result from using passive voice, which distances the subject from the action in the sentence, as shown below.
Incorrect: The board president was approached after the performance by an unknown woman.
Better: An unknown woman approached the board president after the performance.
The original version suggests that an unknown woman performed (imagine the advertising for that!). The corrected version removes the passive voice and places the subject of the sentence (an unknown woman) next to what she did (approached). You could also fix the misplaced modifier and retain the passive voice with the following correction:
The board president was approached by an unknown woman after the performance.
Misplaced adjectives are relatively common and generally understood in everyday speech. If, for example, a friend asks you to meet her for a hot cup of coffee, you know what she means. And responding with something like, “Don’t you mean a cup of hot coffee?” likely will limit future invitations from her. But in more formal writing, misplaced adjectives are imprecise and should be eliminated, as the following example illustrates:
Incorrect: The attorney asked that his client be admitted to a mental hospital because he was insane.
Better: The attorney asked that his insane client be admitted to a mental hospital.
Who is insane … the lawyer or the client? Moving the adjective insane closer to the word it modifies clarifies the meaning, as shown in the corrected version.
Misplaced adjectival phrases are even more confusing (and often more hilarious), as in the following example:
Incorrect: The hostess passed the platter to the guest that was heaped with tangy barbequed ribs.
Better: The hostess passed the heaping platter of tangy barbequed ribs to the guest.
Is the message in the first example understandable? Yes … given the unlikelihood of a guest covered in tangy ribs. But the misplaced modifier slows the reader and impedes immediate comprehension, which is counter to the fundamentals of good communication. The corrected version is both pithier and clearer.
Misplacing adverbs can change a sentence’s meaning, as shown below:
Les only wants to work on weekends.
Les wants to work only on weekends.
The first example means Les doesn’t want to do anything except work on weekends. The second example means that weekends are the only days Les wants to work.
Unlike the examples in the sections above, either one here could be correct, depending on the writer’s meaning. Adverbs that can cause similar problems with unintended meanings include just, nearly, merely and almost.
Squinting modifiers are those that can modify either the words that come before or those that follow, which makes the meaning of the sentence ambiguous. In other words, they seem to be looking in two directions at once. Here’s an example:
We cannot accept completely illogical reasoning.
This sentence could mean either that the reasoning is completely illogical or that it can’t be accepted completely. The following corrections will help clarify the meaning:
We cannot completely accept illogical reasoning.
We cannot accept reasoning that is completely illogical.
In the serious business of editing, we appreciate the comic relief misplaced modifiers can provide. Feel free to share in the comments any particularly funny ones you’ve encountered.