Misplaced Modifier Examples

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Misplaced Modifier

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that does not clearly relate to what it is intended to modify. In other words, a misplaced modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous or wrong.

Examples of Misplaced Modifiers

Here are some examples of misplaced modifiers (shaded):
  • Andrew told us after the holiday that he intends to stop drinking.
  • (In this example, it is not clear whether Andrew made this statement after the holiday or whether he intends to stop drinking after the holiday.)
  • Running quickly improves your health.
  • (In this example, it is not clear if quickly modifies running or improves.)
  • We will not sell paraffin to anyone in glass bottles.
  • (Often, like in this example, common sense tells us what the writer meant. Clearly, this is about paraffin in glass bottles not people in glass bottles. However, placing your modifier too far away from the thing being modified will do little to showcase your writing skills.)

Misplaced Modifiers Can Change the Meaning

Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not a mistake. It just leads to an unintended meaning. Look at these sentences:
  • He lost nearly $5,000 in Las Vegas.
  • (This means he lost just under $5,000.)
  • He nearly lost $5,000 in Las Vegas.
  • (Here, we don't know how much he lost. He might have lost nothing at all.)
These examples demonstrate that a modifier needs to be near whatever it's modifying.

How to Avoid a Misplaced Modifier

You can avoid a misplaced modifier by placing your modifier alongside whatever it's modifying. For example:
  • Jack can hear Jill when she whispers clearly.
  • (As the intended meaning is that Jack can clearly hear Jill's whispers, this is a misplaced modifier. It can be corrected by moving the modifier next to the word it is meant to modify.)
Here is a correct version for the intended meaning:
  • Jack can clearly hear Jill when she whispers.
If the meaning were Jack can hear Jill's clear whispers, then the first version would be correct:
  • Jack can hear Jill when she whispers clearly.
Probably the most famous example of a misplaced modifier is not a misplaced modifier at all. Look at this well-known joke by Groucho Marx:
  • One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know. (Groucho Marx)
This is not a misplaced modifier because the elephant was actually in his pyjamas.

Types of Misplaced Modifiers

There are three types of misplaced modifiers:

(1) Those that modify the wrong thing.
  • He only eats ice-cream.
  • He eats only ice-cream.
These are the classic misplaced modifiers. This error occurs quite often with the word only.

Read more about misplacing limiting modifiers (e.g., only).

(2) Those that could feasibly modify either of two things in the sentence.
  • Talking quickly annoys people.
These are more commonly called squinting modifiers.

(3) Those that modify nothing.
  • Having read your letter, my dog will be taken to the vet for a test.
  • Having read your letter, I will take my dog to the vet for a test.
These are more commonly called dangling modifiers.