Misplaced modifiers: Babies who smoke

Misplaced modifiers can be hilarious.

They are sometimes called ‘dangling modifiers’.

We see them everywhere. Sometimes, even though they are incorrect, they don’t mangle the meaning of the sentence.

In some cases, though, they are just downright comical.

What are misplaced modifiers?

A modifier is a group of words that adds meaning to (or modifies) a word. The modifier should be placed as close as possible to that word.

If it is misplaced, it creates ambiguity, or just nonsense.

Here are some examples:

There should be penalties for women having babies who smoke.

– There certainly should be. Babies smoking! Whatever next?

She rode past on a grey horse wearing a pink lacy hat.

– And I’m sure the horse looked very fetching in it.

At the age of nine, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

– Already a mother at the age of nine?

Can you fix these sentences?

You’ll find my suggestions at the end of the article.

Identifying misplaced modifiers


I enjoy receiving my Word of the Day from Dictionary.com, but I was a little disappointed when I saw this entry:

Definitions for ‘putsch’

1.  a plotted revolt or attempt to overthrow a government, especially one that depends on suddenness and speed.

Now I’m guessing that a government ‘that depends on suddenness and speed’ (and I’d like to know which government that might be) is less likely to be overthrown.

But that’s not the issue. Because that’s not what was meant at all.

Did you spot the dangling modifier in the definition?

The clause ‘that depends on suddenness and speed’ should refer to the ‘plotted revolt’, not to ‘a government’.

The modifier is definitely in the wrong place.

The definition should read:
‘an attempt to overthrow a government; a plotted revolt, especially one that depends on suddenness and speed’.

How to avoid misplaced modifiers

It’s not really difficult. And it’s also easy to rearrange or rewrite incorrect sentences so that they really do say what you want them to say.

Now back to the original examples. All three have been reworded slightly so they make proper sense.

The modifier (in blue) is now placed next to the word being modified (in bold)

  • There should be penalties for women who smoke when having babies

or, better still …women who smoke while they are pregnant

  • Wearing a pink lacy hat, she rode past on a grey horse. 

The final example is better without a modifier, mainly because there are two clauses, each with its own subject.

Instead, there is an introductory, or supporting clause (in blue), which gives more information about the main clause: it establishes when it happened.

When I was about nine years old, my mother told me about the birds and the bees.

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