Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Misplaced modifiers—words or phrases that provide additional information to the main idea of a sentence but create confusing or at least awkward phrasing because of where they are placed within the sentence’s syntax—abound in writing. As explained below in the discussion of revision of sentences burdened by this problem, the solution is often simply relocating the modifier as a subordinate clause that precedes the main clause.

1. A Bill Cosby Show actress claims the comedian raped her in a new lawsuit.

The sentence literally states that the rape occurred in a lawsuit. But the point is that the lawsuit states that the rape occurred, so the sentence should begin with the context: “In a new lawsuit, a Bill Cosby Show actress claims the comedian raped her.” Another option is to parenthesize “in a new lawsuit” between the subject, “A Bill Cosby Show actress,” and the predicate, “claims the comedian raped her.” (The parenthesis can also follow the verb.)

2. The attorney said that he was confident that justice would be served as he stood on the courthouse steps.

Just as in the first example, this sentence features a distracting misstatement. The attorney did not claim that during the time he was standing on the courthouse steps, justice would be served, but that’s what the sentence implies. To clarify that the reference to the courthouse steps is tangential to his pronouncement, it should be moved to the beginning of the sentence as a subordinate clause: “As he stood on the courthouse steps, the attorney said that he was confident that justice would be served.” As in the previous example, the modifier can be inserted in the middle of the sentence, either before or after said.

3. The property belonged to Lance Benson twice, who lost the land in a divorce settlement and then bought it back in 2012.

The antecedent, or prior reference, to who—the name Lance Benson—must appear immediately before the pronoun, with no intervening words, so twice must be relocated: “The property twice belonged to Lance Benson, who lost the land in a divorce settlement and then bought it back in 2012.” Twice could also begin the sentence, but the statement flows more smoothly when it follows the subject.

4. North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb to widespread skepticism.

This sentence suggests that widespread skepticism was an intended result of the bomb test; it appears as if a verb such as garner is missing from before “widespread skepticism.” To explicitly note that the skepticism was independent of the bomb test, the result should be introduced as a subordinate clause before the main clause: “To widespread skepticism, North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb.” (Again, the modifier can be inserted before or after the verb instead.)

Better yet, however, the result could be described with a verb inserted before it and the entire phrase set off from the main clause by a comma: “North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb, prompting widespread skepticism.”

5. The rocks appeared to be the size of small cars in pictures posted by the National Park Service.

This sentence, read literally, compares the size of the rocks to the size of small cars featured in photographs posted by the National Park Service. To clarify that the photos show rocks the size of small cars, not small cars themselves, the phrase describing the photos should precede the main clause as an introductory subordinate clause: “In pictures posted by the National Park Service, the rocks appeared to be the size of small cars.”

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2 Responses to “Misplaced Modifiers”

  • Melissa Semento

    This article was helpful by providing extremely descriptive sentences. By using current news topics in the examples, my attention became more focused on the corrections that should be made.

  • David

    This is very helpful advice.
    In your examples, 1 and 4, I think it’s more a case of the headline writer trying to engage the readers’ attention, from the impact of the opening words: Bill Cosby, and North Korea.
    I can see why they do that.
    But what strikes me here, is that the headline writers could have written their headlines that way, if they had just inserted a comma.

    1) A Bill Cosby actress claims the comedian raped her, in a new lawsuit.

    4) North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb, to widespread skepticism.

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