What Is a Misplaced Modifier? (With Examples)

Understanding common grammar errors and how to fix them is a key part of working as a proofreader. In this post, we explain what misplaced modifiers are and what you can do when you spot them in your clients’ work.

What Is a Misplaced Modifier?

Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that describe another part of a sentence. A misplaced modifier is just that: a modifier that’s in the wrong place. It’s too far away, or separated from, the thing it’s meant to be modifying.

Take a look at this example:

The dog paid no attention to his owner while he was chewing on a bone.

We can assume this sentence is meant to convey that the dog is the one chewing on a bone. But the modifying phrase (“while he was chewing on a bone”) is too far away from the intended subject (“the dog”) and closer to “his owner”.

Because the modifier is misplaced, the sentence instead implies that the owner is the one enjoying a meaty snack. To avoid confusion and potential embarrassment, you should keep an eye out for any misplaced modifiers in your client’s work.

Misplaced Modifiers and Adverbs

Adverbs such as “just,” “only,” and “nearly” are some of the most commonly misplaced modifiers. Sometimes, the placement of these modifiers can completely change the meaning of the sentence.

For example:

Only visitors wearing name tags will be granted access.

This sentence implies that access is only granted if the visitor is wearing a name tag. But that meaning changes if we move the modifier “only”:

Visitors wearing only name tags will be granted access.

Now the sentence gives the impression that visitors will be granted access if they’re wearing name tags and nothing else! While each of these sentences is technically correct, only one carries the meaning the author intended to convey.

What to Do with Misplaced Modifiers

Unlike dangling modifiers, a sentence that includes a misplaced modifier already provides all the necessary information, just in the wrong order. This means that when a misplaced modifier causes confusion, it’s usually easy to fix.

The solution is simply to move the modifier to its correct place in the sentence, either immediately before or after the intended subject:

She arrived at the office covered in mud. ✘

Covered in mud, she arrived at the office. ✔

My dad bought shoes for my sister with wheels. ✘

My dad bought shoes with wheels for my sister. ✔

However, in some cases, the modifying phrase could modify both the clause immediately before and immediately after it:

The crew decided after the storm they would repair the ship. ✘

Does this sentence mean that the decision happened after the storm, or that the repairs should wait until the storm had passed?

To fix this sort of ambiguous modifier (sometimes referred to as a squinting modifier), either move the modifier closer to the clause it should be describing or insert “that” to clarify the sentence:

After the storm, the crew decided they would repair the ship. ✔

The crew decided after the storm that they would repair the ship. ✔

Now it’s clear that the crew made their decision after the storm. As a proofreader, you should always aim for clarity. Spotting and fixing misplaced modifiers will help make your client’s writing as clear as possible.

And if you’re presented with a misplaced modifier but you’re not sure which of the two possible interpretations the author intended, you should explain the issue and ask for clarification; don’t just guess.

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