Modifiers are words, phrases or clauses that give more information about another word in the sentence. Modifiers most often are placed next to the word it modifies. Modifiers answer the questions where, why, when, who, how and what. Here are some examples. The modifiers are in red:
- There is a little boy at the bus stop (where).
- Because Jimmy was late (why), he missed the last bus.
- Jane went jogging after doing her chores (when).
- My neighbour, who is a policeman (who), is not a helpful person.
- The boy cried loudly (how) when he was hit by a sharp object.
- The aardvark, a tame animal (what), feeds on ants and other insects.
Notice that in all the examples above, the modifiers are placed next to the phrase it modifies.
(a) Dangling modifiers
Now, look at this sentence:
- While talking on the phone, the doorbell rang. (X)
The sentence appears to be correct, but it’s not. What is wrong with that sentence? Who is talking on the phone – you or the doorbell? The sentence above shows that the doorbell was talking on the phone. It doesn’t make sense! The phrase “while talking on the phone” appears to be dangling, and does not correctly modify the phrase “the doorbell rang”. This error is a dangling modifier.
Here is the correct sentence.
- While I was talking on the phone (who), the doorbell rang. (√)
So, in this sentence, who was talking on the phone? Me.
(b) Misplaced modifiers
Sometimes, modifiers are wrongly placed in a sentence. Therefore, the sentence does not convey the message correctly, or it could be humourous. Check out these sentences:
- We read that Janet was married in her last letter. (X)
In her last letter, we read that Janet was married. (√)
- I almost listened to the whole album. (X)
I listened to almost the whole album. (√)
In Example #1, it seems that Janet was married in her letter. This is ridiculous; it’s funny because you cannot marry in a letter. In Example #2, the sentence “I almost listened…” means that you wanted to listen but you did not in the end. If this is not what you are trying to say, then you have to correct it.
In both examples, the modifiers at at the wrong place, thus modifier errors like these are misplaced modifiers. To correct misplaced modifiers, just move the modifiers next to the words or phrases that they modify.