Understanding correct use of sentence modifiers can be helpful with your writing. Plus you will get word-nerd cred if you point them out when editing a colleague’s writing.
A sentence modifier is a word, phrase or clause that adds information to another part of the sentence. But it doesn’t always go to plan…
A misplaced modifier is too far from the thing it’s modifying, making the sentence unclear or ambiguous.
The volunteers served pies to the customers with sauce.
[No pies for customers without sauce!]
I wanted to read the book I got on my birthday yesterday.
[Did she want to read the book yesterday, or was her birthday yesterday?]
These are usually solved by reordering words:
The volunteers served pies with sauce to the customers.
Yesterday I wanted to read the book I got on my birthday.
Or you may need to add something.
I wanted to read the book I got on my birthday, which was yesterday.
These modifiers are squinting because they are not sure which way they are looking. They are found in the middle of a sentence and it’s not clear what they are modifying.
After I packed up my house with the help of my sister I moved interstate.
[Which of these things did he do with the help of his sister?]
The teachers have found after doing these extra exercises that students improve.
[Who did the exercises, the teachers or the students?]
She told her housemates eventually they would have to move out.
[Did she eventually tell them, or did they eventually have to move out?]
These can often be solved with punctuation:
After I packed up my house with the help of my sister, I moved interstate.
After I packed up my house, with the help of my sister I moved interstate.
Or reordering words so the modifier is closer to what it’s modifying:
The teachers have found that students improve after doing these extra exercises.
She eventually told her housemates they would have to move out.
She told her housemates they would have to move out eventually.
These modifiers are confused and confusing. They are not modifying the subject of the sentence, so what are they modifying? Nothing — they are dangling.
As a huge fan, the concert was the highlight of my week.
[Is the concert a huge fan?]
Always hungry, dinner is my favourite time of the day.
[Dinner is always hungry?]
Looking at her watch, the train pulled out of the station.
[The train wears a watch?]
These usually need a rewrite to solve:
I’m a huge fan so the concert was the highlight of my week.
I’m always hungry; dinner is my favourite time of the day.
She looked at her watch as the train pulled out of the station.
Hope that helps.
(Credit note: this is an amended version of material I worked on for the Grammar and Punctuation module for the RMIT Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing.)