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Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Think of a magnet. It draws whatever is closest to it. Same with modifiers. Misplaced modifiers are single words, phrases or clauses that do not point clearly to the word or words they modify. As a rule, related words usually should be kept together. Below are six tips for placing modifiers.

Limiting modifiers (only, even, almost, nearly, just) should be placed in front of the words they modify.
Wrong: You will only need to plant one seed package.
Better: You will need to plant only one seed package. ("Only" modifies "one," not "need.")


Place modifying phrases and clauses so that readers can see at a glance what they modify.
Wrong: The robber was described as a tall man with a black moustache weighing 150 pounds.
Better: The robber was described as a six-foot-tall man weighing 150 pounds with a black moustache. (“150 pounds” describes the man, not the moustache.)


Sentences should flow from subject to verb to object without lengthy detours along the way. When adverbs separate subject from verb, verb from object, or helping-verb from main-verb, the result can be awkward.
Not great: John, after trying to reach the ball, decided to get a ladder.
Better: After trying to reach the ball, John decided to get a ladder. (Subject and verb are no longer separated.)


Infinitives (= “to” + verb) usually should not be split unless necessary, especially in formal writing. That rule has been greatly relaxed, though. (Notice how “has been relaxed” was just split!)
Not great: The patient should try to, if possible, avoid going up and down stairs.
Better: If possible, the patient should try to avoid going up and down stairs.


Dangling modifiers are word groups (usually introductory) that may confuse some people if they fail to refer logically to any word in a sentence. Rewording a sentence may help clarify the meaning.
Wrong: Deciding to join the navy, the recruiter happily pumped Joe’s hand. (The recruiter is not deciding to join the navy, Joe is.)
Better: The recruiter happily pumped Joe’s hand after learning that Joe had decided to join the navy.
Wrong: Though only 16, CMU accepted Martha's application. (CMU is not 16, Martha is.)
Better: Though Martha was only 16, CMU accepted her application.


Repair dangling modifiers by restructuring the sentence.
Possibly unclear: When watching films, commercials are especially irritating.

a. One option would be to change the subject so that it names the actor that the modifier implies: When watching films, I find commercials especially irritating.
b. Another option would be to turn the modifier into a word group that includes the actor: When I am watching films, commercials are especially irritating.

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