Misplaced modifiers: Babies who smoke

Misplaced modifiers can be hilarious.

They have a sub-species, called ‘dangling modifiers’.

We see them everywhere. Not only are they are incorrect, they 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.

What Is A Dangling Modifier?

Sometimes a modifier adds meaning to a word or phrase that isn’t even in the sentence. It just ‘dangles’, with nothing to do.

In most cases, it seems to refer to whatever word or phrase it happens to be closest to, so it becomes a misplaced and dangling modifier – with comical results.

Here’s an example:

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.

How To Identify A Misplaced Modifier

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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 the sentence meant at all.

Did you spot the misplaced 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:

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

How To Correct Misplaced Modifiers

It’s not really difficult. The best way is to rearrange or rewrite incorrect sentences so that they really do say what you want them to say.

Now back to the original examples. They 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 hatshe rode past on a grey horse. 

Remember the third example?

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

The dangling modifier (in blue) was comical because it seemed to be describing ‘my mother’.

Who was, in fact, aged nine? The sensible answer is ‘I was’.

The dangling modifier was adding meaning to the ‘I’, which didn’t even appear in the sentence.

To fix it, we need to put the ‘I’ in.

In this case, putting in a modifier will make the sentence sound clumsy. It’s better to have two clauses, each with its own subject.

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

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

Avoiding a misplaced modifier, a misplaced and dangling modifier, or anything else that confuses the sense of your message, might seem like a minor detail. But your potential clients will notice.

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