Misplaced, Dangling, and Squinting Modifiers
Mistakes with modifiers are tough to detect. Most armchair writers don’t know what modifiers are. Misplaced modifiers are one of the most common grammatical errors and cause of humor. Your writing will become clearer when you learn how to spot and correct misplaced, dangling and squinting modifiers.
Modifiers can be a word, phrase or clause that describes another word or group of words in your sentence. As a general rule, modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the words that they’re describing. Otherwise, your sentence risks becoming a laughingstock or ambiguous.
Example: The doctor told me I was overweight on Monday.
Does this mean I looked great the rest of the week?
Correct usage: On Monday, the doctor told me I was overweight.
Example: I set out a breakfast of yogurt and cereal for my family on the kitchen table.
Perhaps your family would be more comfortable sitting in chairs rather than on the kitchen table.
Correct usage: I set out a breakfast of yogurt and cereal on the kitchen table for my family.
A dangling modifier does not logically or grammatically refer to anything in the sentence because the words it is meant to describe are missing or too far away in the sentence. For the most part, dangling or unattached modifiers tend to occur at the start of a sentence. Pay special attention when you use an initial phrase.
Example: Perched up high on a tree branch, I yelled at the cat to leave the sparrow alone.
I don’t tangle with a tabby unless I am perched 10 feet up in the air.
Seeing a sparrow perched up high on a tree branch, I yelled at the cat to leave him alone.
Example: Driving down the street, my toddler started crying for her teddy bear that she left at grandmother’s home.
I’m shocked to learn that your toddler can already reach the accelerator pedal.
Correct usage: As I was driving down the street, my toddler started crying for her teddy bear that she left at her grandmother’s house.
Squinting modifiers are also called two-way modifiers. It’s difficult to tell whether they modify the words preceeding or following them.
Incorrect usage: Showering with very hot water quickly causes dry skin to develop.
We are unsure if “quickly” modifies hot water or showering. Your readers may think that scaly skin can be avoided if they slow down and spend a longer time taking those steamy showers. Unless you are selling moisturizer, you may want to revise your wording.
Correct usage: Dry skin quickly develops when people shower with very hot water.
Incorrect usage: Getting married often changes your financial situation.
This could mean that multiple divorces are expensive or that splitting the mortgage is advantageous.
Correct usage: Your financial situation often changes when you get married.
Avoid confusion by putting your modifiers where they belong. Identify each modifier in your sentence and make sure the words it modifies are present and nearby.