If you were trying to describe something you just saw on TV, you might say, “The actress accepted an award.” That’s a complete sentence with a noun, verb, and subject, but it doesn’t tell us very much about the specific scene.
To make the sentence more interesting, you might say something like “The actress in a red dress graciously accepted a golden award.” The descriptive words and phrases in this second sentence are called modifiers because they modify the noun (“actress” becomes “actress in a red dress”), verb (“accepted” becomes “graciously accepted”), and subject (“award” becomes “golden award”).
Modifiers provide clarity and specificity by adding details or changes to other words, but when they’re misplaced, they actually make the meaning of the sentence more confusing. Let’s look at another version of the sentence above:
Misplaced modifier version: “The actress graciously accepted a golden award in a red dress.”
In the misplaced modifier version, it sounds as if the golden award, not the actress, is wearing a red dress. This is because the phrase “in a red dress” follows and modifies the phrase “the golden award.” It’s a small mistake that completely changes the meaning of the sentence.
Why we make modifier mistakes
Both native and non-native English speakers sometimes misplace modifiers because they do not initially recognize that their modifier could affect a word or phrase they did not mean to modify.
For example, let’s look at this sentence: “The pilot safely landed the plane in a grassy field with a heart condition.” In this sentence, it sounds like the grassy field has a heart condition, even though that isn’t possible. The correct sentence would be “The pilot with a heart condition safely landed the plane in a grassy field.”
Here are a few more examples of modifier errors and how to fix them.
Misplaced modifier example #1: Running across a muddy field, Anita’s shoes were made dirty. (This sentence is incorrect because it sounds as if Anita’s shoes are running.)
Correct version: Running across a muddy field, Anita made her shoes dirty. (This sentence is correct because “Anita” is placed after the modifying phrase, revealing that Anita is the one who is running.)
Misplaced modifier example #2: The winning contestant only received the $1-million prize. (This sentence is incorrect because it sounds as if the winning contestant did nothing but receive her prize.)
Correct version: Only the winning contestant received the $1-million prize. (This sentence is correct because “the winning contestant” is placed after the modifying phrase, showing that only the winning contestant, not the other competitors, won the prize.)
Misplaced modifier example #3: Lorrie nearly played volleyball for three hours. (This sentence is incorrect because it makes it sound like Lorrie came close to playing volleyball but didn’t actually do it.)
Correct version: Lorrie played volleyball for nearly three hours. (This sentence is correct because the modifier is in front of “three hours,” revealing that Lorrie played volleyball for close to three hours.)
How to correctly place modifiers
Hopefully you’ve noticed a common theme in the examples above: The modifier is placed right next to the thing it is modifying. To determine whether to put the modifier before or after the thing being modified, pay attention to the part of speech.
An adjective modifier (such as “happy,” “fast,” “golden,” or “smart”) typically goes before the thing being modified.
An adverb modifier (such as “happily,” “quickly,” or “very”) can go before or after the thing being modified depending on what exactly it’s modifying. For example, you might say “a very intelligent student” because the word “very” is modifying the word “intelligent” (not “student”), while you could say either “The lizard ran quickly“ or “The lizard quickly ran” because in both cases, it is clear the word “ran” is being modified.
Misplaced modifiers can be tricky, so get in the habit of reading over your writing and paying close attention in conversations to ensure your modifier either immediately precedes or follows the phrase being modified.