CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

Misusing modifiers

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? What is a modifier?

Usually an adverb or adjective, a modifier adds additional or optional information to a sentence, phrase or word. In order to be used correctly and clearly, a modifier must be placed next to the element it is modifying. For example:

This is a red double-decker bus.

Both red and double-decker are adjectives and are modifying the noun bus. Without these modifiers, the sentence ‘This is a bus’ is still grammatically correct.

However, modifiers often find themselves in the wrong place, causing confusion for a reader.

Misplaced modifiers

Misplacing your modifiers creates clunky and problematic sentences as well as mixed meanings.

‘Throw the pigs outside their food.’

It’s obvious that the writer didn’t mean to say ‘Throw the pigs outside’, so the modifier is in the wrong place. By removing the modifier outside, we can see what the writer really wanted to say.

‘Throw the pigs their food.’

The pigs just happen to be outside. By rewording the sentence, we can fix the misplaced modifier situation while also retaining all the information.

‘Throw the pigs’ food outside.’

OR

‘Go outside and throw the pigs their food.’

Further examples of misplaced modifiers:

John has to write an essay about Antony and Cleopatra in his English class.

Emma was only in the room today.

Hawke strapped his weapons belt around his waist which he bought yesterday.

Unless both Antony and Cleopatra are with John in his English class, this sentence should be:

John has to write an essay in his English class about Antony and Cleopatra.

If Emma was the only person in the room today, as opposed to only being in the room today (and not any other day), the sentence should read instead:

Only Emma was in the room today.

Hawke did not buy his waist yesterday. He bought his weapons belt yesterday! (At least, I hope so!)

Hawke strapped his weapons belt, which he bought yesterday, around his waist.

Squinting modifiers

Sometimes referred to as a two-way modifier, a squinting modifier occurs when it is placed between two words and is not clearly modifying one or the other.

Students who misbehave often get sent to detention.

As you can see, the word often could be modifying misbehave or get and, depending on how you read it, the sentence could have a couple of different meanings. In order to abolish the ambiguity, this sentence could be reworded the following ways:

Students who often misbehave get sent to detention.

Often, students who misbehave get sent to detention.

Students who misbehave get sent to detention often.

Further examples of squinting modifiers:

Running in new shoes quickly wears them in.

Reading Harry Potter frequently makes me wish I had magic.

Women who wear high heels only occasionally tend to fall over.

Regardless of how fast you run, any kind of running will wear in new shoes. Therefore, this sentence should be changed to:

Running in new shoes wears them in quickly.

While I must admit, both possible ways of reading this sentence are true for me, I intended the modifier to relate to make me wish rather than reading Harry Potter. So it should be written like this:

Reading Harry Potter makes me frequently wish I had magic.

Finally, when it comes to wearing high heels:

Women who only occasionally wear high heels tend to fall over.

Dangling modifiers

These can sometimes occur in longer pieces of prose where a writer forgets to reinforce the main subject in a sentence (often in an attempt to avoid repetition). This term dangling refers to a modifier that does not appear to have a direct relationship with any element of the sentence. To put it simply, it’s just hanging or dangling there, doing nothing!

Sitting on the edge of the table, the sun slowly set.

As I said, something like this could occur within a large piece of descriptive text and the subject could be firmly placed elsewhere, making a sentence like this seem ordinary. However, if we take this sentence out of context, the subject is not obvious and so the modifier ‘Sitting on the edge of the table’ does not appear to be modifying anything. The someone who is sitting on the edge of the table is not mentioned, leaving sun as the only possible noun to which the modifier could possibly relate, which it clearly doesn’t.

While situations like this could be ignored on the basis of an artistic choice made by the writer, a dangling modifier could be rectified by adding in a subject. For example:

As I was sitting on the edge of the table, the sun slowly set.

The sun slowly set while she was sitting on the edge of the table.

Further examples of dangling modifiers:

Turning on the TV, the news began to play.

Walking along the footpath, it felt suddenly cold.

Squeezing the brakes, the bike skidded to a stop.

While these sentences sort of make sense as they are, they are all missing a modified subject, leaving the first elements—the modifiers—dangling. Fixing these sorts of sentences often require you to change tenses to better express your meaning. For example:

When Richard turned on the TV, the news began to play.

As I was walking along the footpath, it felt suddenly cold.

Jim squeezed the brakes and the bike skidded to a stop.

Most of these modifier issues can be solved by rereading your sentence from an objective viewpoint—something that can be done by simply getting up and doing something else for five minutes, then returning to your work.

Good luck!

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