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Module 4 - The Case of the Misplaced Modifier

So, what do you think is wrong with saying, "I only write on weekdays"?

Think about it...if you're the one saying that, you know what you want to say, but does your meaning come out right?

Do you mean you write on weekdays only or you don't do anything but write on weekdays, not even eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, or brush your teeth?

Yes, you got it. If you say, "I only write on weekdays," then you're not really saying what you mean to say. That's why it's bad grammar to say it that way. Unless you put the modifier "only" in the right position, no one is going to be sure of your intended meaning.

So instead of saying, "I only write on weekdays," say it this way: "I write only on weekdays." Clearer and less confusing that way, isn't it?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this thing called "modifier," take a look first at these examples:

  • The publisher only knows when the newspaper will fold.
  • While sipping tea and having scones, a storm suddenly blew up.
  • On his first trip to the zoo, a gorilla got loose.

The three sentences above sound really funny and awkward, don't they? It's because in each instance, the modifier is either misplaced, missing or dangling.

It's highly unlikely that the only thing the publisher knows is when the newspaper will cease publishing; or that the storm was sipping tea and having scones; or that gorillas, while they do belong to the zoo, are likely to go on trips. But these seem to be what the sentences are implying. Why is that? It's because a word or a group of words is in the wrong place, and that the word or group of words describes (or modifies) the wrong thing.

The remedy? Nothing that a little rearranging or adding won't fix.

  • Only the publisher knows when the newspaper will fold.
  • While we were sipping tea and having scones, a storm suddenly brewed up.
  • On his first trip to the zoo, John saw a gorilla got loose.

Now you know that the placement of modifiers can make or break the meaning of your sentences. Misplace your modifiers and you have a very serious problem.

So how do you avoid the modifier problem?

  1. Keep your modifier as close as possible to the part of the sentence that it modifies. Don't place it where it may seem to modify some other word instead of the right one. Thus, the following all have different meaning just by virtue of shifting the positions of the modifier "only" -- "an only child," "a child only," and "only a child."

  2. Avoid letting your modifiers dangle. Dangling modifiers are generally groups of words that just float at the beginning of sentences, with nothing really to hang on to. The sentence, "On his first trip to the zoo, a gorilla got loose" is an example of a sentence with a dangling modifier.

Writing Activities/Exercises

Now that you've learned how modifiers can make or break your writing, why don't you try these exercises?

Flex your writing muscles and correct these humorous bad examples of dangling and misplaced modifiers. You can re-write each sentence more than once. Just make sure your finished sentences are clear.

  1. While on the way to the prom, her dress got ripped at the seam.
  2. When only four, her mother taught her to read.
  3. Scrambling across the field, a car light appeared.
  4. He watched the procession sitting by the window.
  5. The woman was escorted by her fiance wearing a red velvet gown.
  6. The policeman shot the robber who was fleeing with his gun.
  7. Reading the magazine, her kitten sat on her lap.
  8. The library was designed by a famous architect, whose basement is full of dusty and old books.
  9. I smiled at the old lady with the poodle with the red scarf.
  10. She climbed to get the kitty down the tree that was mewing.
  11. She waved at me as I left with her right hand.
  12. Fighting among themselves, the teacher separated the kindergarten boys.
  13. Waiting impatiently for the pizza, the pizza delivery boy finally arrived.
  14. When in hurry to get to Paris, a plane leaves at 8 a.m.
  15. Strolling down the road, a car came into view.

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