Misplaced modifiers and how to fix them

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes another part of a sentence. A misplaced modifier is improperly positioned in relation to the word, phrase or clause it is supposed to describe.

Neil Armstrong made history as the first man to step on the moon in 1969.

In this example, due to the placement of the modifier in 1969, the sentence seems to say that Neil Armstrong was the first man in that particular year to step on the moon.

Instead, the modifier should be placed directly next to the clause it relates to – Neil Armstrong made history:

  • In 1969 Neil Armstrong made history as the first man to step on the moon.
  • Neil Armstrong made history in 1969 as the first man to step on the moon.

How to fix a misplaced modifier

A misplaced modifier can be easily fixed by positioning the modifier immediately before or immediately after the word or phrase that it is modifying.

  • Misplaced
  • Corrected
The waiter presented a steak to the guest that was medium rare.The waiter presented a medium-rare steak to the guest.

The waiter presented a steak that was medium rare to the guest.

Most participants selected a lunch from the menu that was high in sugar.Most participants selected a lunch that was high in sugar from the menu.

Most participants selected from the menu a lunch that was high in sugar.

She arrived home and fell onto the sofa covered in sweat.Covered in sweat, she arrived home and fell onto the sofa.

She arrived home covered in sweat and fell onto the sofa.

Despite receiving widespread critical acclaim, box office sales of the film were poor.Despite receiving widespread critical acclaim, the film performed poorly at the box office.

Adverb placement

Adverbs like only, just, almost, nearly, and especially can subtly change the meaning of a sentence depending on where they are placed, often resulting in ambiguity or confusion.

Pay attention to which word or phrase your adverbs are modifying in order to make your sentences as clear as possible.

Adverb placementMeaning
For the study, Jane only interviewed Japanese speakers.Jane interviewed Japanese speakers and did not take any other action (such as holding focus groups or distributing questionnaires).
For the study, Jane interviewed only Japanese speakers.Jane interviewed people who speak Japanese, and not people who speak other languages.
Due to the severe concussion, she almost lost all memory of the accident.She was in danger of completely forgetting the accident.
Due to the severe concussion, she lost almost all memory of the accident.She forgot most, but not all, of the accident.

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Ambiguous Modifiers

Even if a modifier is placed next to the correct part of the sentence, you need to make sure that it isn’t ambiguous. Sometimes a modifier is placed so that it could modify either the words that precede it or the ones that follow it, which makes the meaning of the sentence unclear.

The couple agreed during the family dinner they would announce their engagement.

Did the couple come to the agreement during dinner? Or will they make the announcement during dinner? The positioning of the modifier during the family dinner creates ambiguity.

An ambiguous modifier can be fixed by moving it to another position in the sentence or by rewording to clarify which phrase it is modifying. In many cases, you can use the word that to separate the modifier from the clause that it is not intended to modify.

  • Ambiguous
  • Unambiguous
The couple agreed during the family dinner they would announce their engagement.The couple agreed they would announce their engagement during the family dinner.

During the family dinner, the couple agreed they would announce their engagement.

The couple agreed that during the family dinner they would announce their engagement.

I told John when the seminar was over we should review for the upcoming exam.When the seminar was over, I told John we should review for the upcoming exam.

I told John we should revise for the upcoming exam when the seminar was over.

I told John when the seminar was over that we should revise for the upcoming exam.

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Amy Luo

Amy has a master’s degree in History of Art and has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2014. She is passionate about helping people communicate clearly and effectively.

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