An introduction to modifiers

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes, defines, or qualifies something else in a sentence.

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:

  • 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.

The most common modifier mistakes are dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers. Both terms refer to modifiers that are connected to the wrong thing in a sentence.

A misplaced modifier is too far away from the thing it’s supposed to modify, while a dangling modifier’s intended subject is missing from the sentence altogether.

What is a misplaced modifier?

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

A misplaced modifier can be fixed by moving it so that it is connected to the right subject.

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.

In this example, the misplaced modifier implies that the guest was medium rare. Moving the modifier correctly indicates that it was the steak that was medium rare.

Read more about misplaced modifiers

What is a dangling modifier?

A dangling modifier occurs when the subject of a modifier is missing from the sentence.

Dangling modifiers often take the form of an introductory phrase followed by a clause that doesn’t state the intended subject.

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.

In this example, the subject who was fumbling in her purse is not stated, so it seems like the keys were doing the fumbling. A dangling modifier like this can be fixed either by rewriting the main clause in active voice, or by revising the introductory phrase.

Read more about dangling modifiers

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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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