Grammar Review #3: Misplaced Modifiers

By Maeve Maddox

The error known as a “misplaced modifier” often results in hilarious images. Some of these errors, whether originating in actual writing or invented by clever English teachers, have achieved classical status and are quoted on numerous websites. Here are five of my favorites:

1. With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena.

2. Holding a bag of groceries, the roach flew out of the cabinet.

3. Mrs. Daniel sews evening gowns just for special customers with sequins stitched on them.

4. She carefully studied the Picasso hanging in the art gallery with her friend.

5. He wore a straw hat on his head, which was obviously too small.

In each of these sentences, a descriptive phrase or clause is separated from the word it is intended to modify:

With his tail held high: prepositional phrase modifying “his prize poodle.”

Holding a bag of groceries: participial phrase modifying an unnamed human being.

with sequins stitched on them: prepositional phrase modifying “evening gowns.”

hanging in the art gallery: participial phrase modifying “the Picasso.”

which was obviously too small: adjective clause modifying “a straw hat.”

Errors of this sort can usually be corrected by simply rearranging the elements of the sentence. Sometimes, the wording may need to be altered as well. Here are the sentences revised:

1. My father led his prize poodle, which held its tail high, around the arena.

2. The roach flew out of the cabinet while Mother was still holding a bag of groceries.

3. Mrs. Daniel sews evening gowns with sequins stitched on them for special customers only.

4. With her friend, she carefully studied the Picasso that was hanging in the art gallery.

5. On his head he wore a straw hat that was obviously too small.

Misplaced modifiers are harder to spot when they are embedded in extended text. Here is an example from a newspaper feature:

Mitchell Pruitt moves quickly even when he’s walking. At 6 feet 4 inches and with long strides to match, his fellow researchers almost sprint to keep pace with Pruitt.

“At 6 feet 4 inches and with long strides to match” refers to Pruitt, not his fellow researchers. One way to correct the error is to combine the sentences:

At 6 feet 4 inches and with long strides to match, Mitchell Pruitt moves so quickly when he’s walking that his fellow researchers almost sprint to keep pace.

Here is an example of a misplaced modifier in a critical essay on Virginia Woolf:

Considered to be one of the leading figures of modernist literature of the twentieth century, her most notable works are the novels Mrs DallowayOrlandoTo the LighthouseThe Waves and the feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own.”

The phrase beginning with “considered” is intended to modify “Virginia Woolf,” but Woolf’s name does not appear in the sentence. The way the sentence is written, the phrase appears to be modifying “her most notable works.” Of course, a reader can infer the intended meaning, but a little revision would make the words say what the writer intends:

Considered to be one of the leading figures of modernist literature of the twentieth century, Woolf wrote nine novels, the most notable of which are Mrs DallowayOrlandoTo the Lighthouse, and The Waves.  Her most notable nonfiction work is the feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own.”

The longer a sentence and the more varied its parts, the easier it is to misplace a modifying phrase or clause. When revising your work, pay particular attention to sentences that begin with prepositional phrases and participles (verb forms ending in -ed and -ing).

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4 Responses to “Grammar Review #3: Misplaced Modifiers”

  • Charles Higginson

    oops – Woolf, not Wolfe.

  • venqax

    She may be afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’ve heard that can be an issue.

  • Menekshe

    Question . sentence number 5 in the first set of examples given… Why is ‘which is obviously too small ‘ an adjective clause and not a relative clause? Clearly ‘small’ is an adjective bjtwthe clause is introduced by the relative . Omission of the latter might turn it into an adj clause , but both relative pronoun and verb are there

  • Maeve

    Menekshe.
    “An adjective clause” and “a relative clause” are the same thing:

    1. A relative clause is one kind of dependent clause. It has a subject and verb, but can’t stand alone as a sentence. It is sometimes called an “adjective clause” because it functions like an adjective—it gives more information about a noun.

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