English Is Hard: Learn About Misplacing and Dangling Modifiers

Photo Credit: Unsplash, Aarn Burden

When I started writing four years ago, I had no idea the level of proper grammar that lay beneath simple and complex sentences. Sure, I could write paragraphs, knew about subjects, verbs, and punctuation, but to know the intricacies within the study of grammar was beyond me.

It wasn’t until I met my editor for my first would-be published novel that I learned really quick just how complex grammar is. And how hard it is to learn! It’s literally it’s own “language” within language.

One thing I never knew existed were misplaced modifiers. What the heck is that?

Here’s a quick summary, thanks to Naa The Proofer on Insta…


And some more explanation….

A modifier is an adjective or verb. If it’s placed at the wrong part of the sentence it’s a misplaced modifier.

“A modifier is a word, phrase or clause that modifies (or describes) another word.

So, an adjective or an adverb are modifiers because they change the meaning or add detail to another word or words — as in ‘the tin man and the cowardly lion.’”

Easy, right? How about an example from study.com?

“The fisherman left his live sack of bait on the dock.

“Live” is the adjective modifier here, and it’s misplaced because it’s modifying the word sack, implying that the sack is alive. The intended meaning is for the bait to be “live”. So, the correct fix would be:

“The fisherman left his sack of live bait on the dock.”

Dangling Modifiers

What’s this? How do you dangle a modifier? It almost sounds a bit naughty, but it’s just another misplaced word. Basically, a sentence is structured as such that the reader does not know what is modified.

“Dreaming of the future, the possibilities were limitless.”

Who is dreaming of the future? Can “possibilities” dream of a future? Of, course not.

This sentence isn’t clear about who or what it’s talking about. You need a subject to point the sentence to or to point the modifier to.

This is better:

“Dreaming of the future, Marla found the possibilities were limitless.”

Ambiguous, or squinting modifiers

Sounds tricky, right? Not really. Sometimes a modifier is placed in a sentence and the reader can’t tell if it modifies the “before” words or the “after”. Grammarly gives a good example.

“Listening to loud music slowly gives me a headache.”

Does listening to loud music slowly cause the headache or does loud music slowly give me a headache? To specify, the words need shifted to:

“When I listen to loud music, I slowly develop a headache.”

Now we see that “I” slowly develop a headache if the music is played too loud. As a writer, ambiguous modifiers are the trickiest to identify. When self-editing, the key is to read slowly to pick up the subtle errors. Or hire a terrific editor to catch them!

Remember catching these tricky rules comes with practice.

Keep writing and pause to self-edit. Before you know it, good grammar will start becoming automatic!