A Quiz About Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Modifying phrases intended to provide clarity can be counterproductive if placed in the wrong position in a sentence. Repair the improper installation of modifiers in the following sentences, then compare your solutions with my revisions at the bottom of the page:

1. “Joseph Priestley began to suspect that air was not a simple substance while he was at Leeds.”

2. “It was under these conditions that Protestantism was introduced to Europe, a branch of Christianity that declared public festivities sinful and vulgar and convinced large numbers of people that their lives should be spent on disciplined labor and worship.”

3. “He had accumulated millions of dollars there that couldn’t be taken out of the country according to rules established after the war ended.”

4. “I already had a number of books and comics under my belt I had drawn with my brother.”

5. “A list of states with the highest past-year rates of driving while under the influence of alcohol among adults ages 18 or older follow.”

Answers and Explanations

1. As organized, this sentence implies that the scientist limited his doubts about air’s composition to the time he spent in Leeds, rather than stating that his suspicion began during his time there. To clarify the sentence, move the modifying phrase to the head of the sentence, and, for good measure, change the tense of the second verb, because air’s substantive nature has not changed since Priestley’s lifetime: “While he was at Leeds, Joseph Priestley began to suspect that air is not a simple substance.”

2. Because Europe is the noun immediately preceding the gloss, a reader might assume that the gloss defines Europe, rather than Protestantism, the correct subject of the definition. To eliminate that ambiguity, move the reference to the continent to the end of the sentence so that the definition is a mid-sentence parenthetical: “It was under these conditions that Protestantism, a branch of Christianity that declared public festivities sinful and vulgar and convinced large numbers of people that their lives should be spent on disciplined labor and worship, was introduced to Europe.”

3. This sentence is not egregiously incorrect, but the phrase beginning with according seems to modify country. It would be easier to read — and the most essential information would effectively be reserved for the end of the sentence — with the phrase inserted as a parenthetical: “He had accumulated millions of dollars there that, according to rules established after the war ended, couldn’t be taken out of the country.”

4. As constructed, this sentence implies that the writer and his brother had collaborated on drawing a belt, under which a number of books and comics were kept. The phrase “under my belt” should be shifted closer to the head of the sentence: “I already had under my belt a number of books and comics I had drawn with my brother.”

5. This painfully contracted sentence needs to be relaxed. The impetus to avoid a weak “to be” form of a verb is admirable, but it is awkward for that verb to be located at the very end, after a confusingly extensive subject. It would be better to immediately state the location of the list, then uncoil the tightly wound phrase identifying the subject of the list: “The following is a list of states with the highest rates of adults ages 18 or older who drove within the last year while under the influence of alcohol.” This is a rare instance in which the modifying phrase (in this case, the subject of the list) is more effectively placed at the end of the sentence, rather than inserted somewhere in its midst.

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6 Responses to “A Quiz About Misplaced Modifiers”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Good quiz, there are some I would have missed for certain. I guess it shows I still need to keep learning and adjusting.

    Am I wrong in my opinion to drop “he was” from example 1’s answer due to word territory/word value? I suppose it depends on the context of the sentences before and after, but it seemed to stick out to me.

    Another great article, glad you are taking the time to share with us!

  • Destiny

    Even though i am not aware of or cannot correctly identifuy the rule, i got each one correct. I am very aware of the correct way the sentences should read. I love English and writing. Thanks for the quizzes that help keep my brain active, and working properly.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    A good discussion, only your solution to number 2 falls foul of the same problem you lament in number 5. Perhaps a better solution would be to move the phrase containing ‘Europe’ out of the way, e.g.:

    “It was under these conditions that Europe saw the emergence of Protestantism, a branch of Christianity that declared public festivities sinful and vulgar and convinced large numbers of people that their lives should be spent on disciplined labor and worship.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Leif:

    I agree that “he was” is extraneous.

    Oliver:

    Your solution works fine, though some writers object to assigning a personified verb like saw to an inanimate object.

  • Marion

    I came up with a different solution for #2, and even though it changes the meaning, I can’t see where it’s not equally correct. My version reads,: “It was under these conditions that Protestantism–a branch of Christianity that declared public festivities sinful and vulgar–was introduced to Europe and convinced large numbers of people that their lives should be spent on disciplined labor and worship.”

  • Karen

    I enjoy your blog and the lively discussions that the examples and solutions often provoke. My solution comes closest to Oliver’s (although I also like Marion’s):
    “Under these conditions, Europe was introduced to Protestantism, a branch of Christianity that declared public festivities sinful and vulgar and convinced large numbers of people that their lives should be spent on worship and disciplined labor.” The verb and noun both remain with their modifiers.

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