Edit for Unclear Modifiers

Unclear Modifiers are

  • either dangling modifiers or misplaced modifiers
  • caused when a modifier–a word, phrase, or clause that describes, strengthens, or clarifies another word (or group of words) in a sentence–is missing or unclear.

In Standard American English, unclear modifiers are typically considered to be errors. However, unclear modifiers do have their uses. For example, a classic Groucho Marx joke relies on a misplaced modifier:

“I shot an elephant in my pajamas this morning. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”

To edit a document for unclear modifiers, take a moment to first understand the differences between dangling modifiers or misplaced modifiers.

1. To check if you have a dangling modifier, read the opening phrase of your sentence. Check to see if it goes with the subject of the sentence. If it doesn’t, you have a dangling modifier.

Ex: Sprinkled with coriander, kids love these potatoes.

Opening phrase of the sentence: sprinkled with coriander

Subject of the sentence: kids

Check for a match: The kids are not what are sprinkled with coriander. The potatoes are! The subject and the opening phrase don’t go together. The phrase sprinkled with coriander is a dangling modifier.

2. To check if you have a misplaced modifier, identify the parts of your sentence that modify other parts. If it’s not clear what part is being modified, you have a misplaced modifier. Misplacedmodifiers can be words or phrases. 

Ex: Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on a train on the back of an envelope.

Sentence parts that modify other parts: On a train is where Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. On the back of an envelope is where the Gettysburg Address was written.

Check if it’s clear what parts are modified: On the back of an envelope seems to describe where the train is, not where the Gettysburg Address was written. Also, visualizing the sentence yields a funny picture of the Gettysburg Address written in tiny letters on a train small enough to fit on an envelope. Because it’s not clear what is being modified, the phrase on the back of an envelope is a misplaced modifier.


Misplaced Modifiers

  • Misplaced modifiers happen when a phrase intended to modify one part of a sentence seems to modify a different part instead.

    Misplaced modifiers occur when the word, phrase, or clause has been separated in a sentence from the word it modifies. This separation causes confusion, leaving readers unsure what work the word, phrase, or clause is intended to be modified. Misplaced modifiers can be fixed by placing the modifying word/phrase/clause near the word it modifies.

Dangling Modifiers

  • A modifier is said to be a dangling modifier when the word, phrase, or clause it modifies has been left out of the sentence.

    Dangling modifiers happen when the opening phrase of a sentence should share the sentence’s subject, but doesn’t. This disconnect can make the sentence confusing because readers aren’t sure what the opening phrase refers to.