How to fix dangling and misplaced modifiers

A modifier is a word or phrase that describes or qualifies another part of a sentence. The most common modifier mistakes are dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.

A dangling modifier occurs when the intended subject (the doer) of the modifier is missing from the sentence, and instead another subject appears in its place.

DanglingCorrected
  • Fumbling in her purse, the keys could not be found.
  • Fumbling in her purse, she could not find the keys.
  • As she fumbled in her purse, the keys could not be found.

A misplaced modifier is too far away from the word, phrase or clause it is intended to modify and, as a result, appears to be modifying something else.

MisplacedCorrected
  • 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.

What is a modifier?

Modifiers include descriptive words such as adjectives and adverbs.

  • She always listened attentively in class.
  • She decided to buy the blue vintage Cadillac.

Modifiers can also be phrases or clauses that give extra information about a word, phrase or clause.

  • Anna smiled when she walked past the bar where she met her husband.
  • Having received a promotion at work, he went out to buy a bottle of champagne.

Dangling modifiers

A dangling modifier is a grammatical error that occurs when the subject of a modifier is missing from the sentence. Dangling modifiers often take the form of an introductory phrase that seems to modify the wrong thing.

In a correct sentence, the subject (or doer) that is modified should immediately follow the comma after the modifier. In the example below, the introductory phrase modifies Jane, the subject of the main clause.

  • While driving to work, Jane witnessed a car accident on the highway.

When a sentence does not clearly state the subject being modified, the introductory phrase becomes a dangling modifier. Often this error is a result of a main clause written in the passive voice.

  • While driving to work, a car accident was witnessed on the highway.

In this sentence, the intended target of the modifier, Jane, is missing. Because a car accident appears where the subject should be, the sentence now suggests that a car accident was driving to work. This is an example of how dangling modifiers can result in nonsensical sentences.

There are two simple ways to fix a dangling modifier.

Method 1: Revise the main clause

One method of fixing a dangling modifier is to leave the modifier as it is and rewrite the main clause so that it begins with the subject being modified.

  • Having injured his dominant hand, it was difficult to write the exam.
  • Having injured his dominant hand, John had difficulty writing the exam.

In the example above, the first sentence fails to clarify whose hand was injured – it does not state the subject of the introductory modifier phrase. In the corrected sentence, the subject, John, appears immediately after the modifier phrase.

  • Dangling
  • Corrected
Hungry after two hours of hiking, my packed sandwich was quickly devoured upon reaching the peak.Hungry after two hours of hiking, I quickly devoured my packed sandwich upon reaching the peak.
Smiling from ear to ear, the candles are blown out, and the novel concludes happily.Smiling from ear to ear, the heroine blows out the candles, and the novel concludes happily.
To become a practicing dentist, many teeth need cleaning, filling, and filing.To become a practicing dentist, you must clean, fill, and file many teeth.

Method 2: Revise the modifier phrase

Another method of fixing a dangling modifier is to include the subject in the introductory phrase, leaving the main clause as it is.

  • Having injured his dominant hand, it was difficult to write the exam.
  • Because John had injured his dominant hand, it was difficult to write the exam.

In the corrected sentence, the dangling modifier is replaced with a complete clause that clearly states the subject who is doing the action.

  • Dangling
  • Corrected
While driving to work, a car accident caused a traffic jam on the highway.While Jane was driving to work, a car accident caused a traffic jam on the highway.
Requiring more data for the study, questionnaires were collected from an additional 200 people.Because we required more data for the study, questionnaires were collected from an additional 200 people.
Taken down to the cellar, the darkness obscured the details of the room.As he was taken down to the cellar, the darkness obscured the details of the room.

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Misplaced modifiers

A misplaced modifier is improperly positioned in relation to the word or phrase it describes. Misplaced modifiers result in sentences that are awkward, confusing, or sometimes downright illogical.

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

In the example above, 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.

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

  • 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.
  • Misplaced
  • Corrected
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 errors. Pay attention to which word or phrase is being modified to make your sentences as clear as possible.

Adverb placementMeaning
For the study, Jane only interviewed Japanese speakers.Jane only 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 only 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.

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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