Posted by: Jack Henry | May 18, 2023

Editor’s Corner: Misplaced Modifiers

Good morning, my people.

Today I want to share information about how to avoid using misplaced modifiers. Kara and I have covered this subject before, but it’s been a while. And since this is a persistent issue that we deal with when editing, it is a good topic to revisit.

First, what is a misplaced modifier? It is a descriptive word or phrase that is misplaced in a sentence so that it causes ambiguity or outright confusion (sometimes they can be pretty funny!).

To make sure we’re on the same page, let me give you some examples:

  • When Jenny got home, she fell onto the sofa covered in sweat.

The misplaced modifier in this sentence is covered in sweat. The misplacement of the phrase makes it sound like the sofa, rather than Jenny, is covered in sweat. We can rewrite the sentence this way to correct it:

When Jenny got home, covered in sweat, she fell onto the sofa.

  • Shahin bought a puppy for his son called Sniffy.

You see how this works now. The pup’s name is Sniffy, but the misplaced modifier makes it sound like Shahin’s son is called Sniffy.

Those are examples of misplaced modifier phrases, but single words can also be modifiers. The following words are known as limiting modifiers: almost, hardly, just, nearly, and only. To avoid ambiguity, we also need to be careful about where we place these words in our sentences. Notice how moving these words in the following sentences changes the meaning. I gathered these examples from the Grammar Diva:

  • Only Judy kicked her friend in the leg. (Modifies Judy. No one else kicked the friend, just good old Judy.)
  • Judy only kicked her friend in the leg. (Modifies kicked; she kicked her friend, but she didn’t do anything else to her.)
  • Judy kicked only her friend in the leg. (Slightly different meaning: Judy didn’t kick anyone else, just her friend, thank goodness!)
  • Judy kicked her only friend in the leg. (Modifies friend; no surprise this was her only friend.)
  • Judy kicked her friend only in the leg. (She didn’t kick her anywhere else.)
  • Judy kicked her friend in her only leg. (Modifies leg; poor friend.)

The trick is to make sure the limiting modifier is next to the word it modifies as in the examples above.

Here’s a lovely old, misplaced modifier you may have heard before:

That’s it! Now you’re an expert on misplaced modifiers. Next time, we’ll tackle dangling modifiers.

Donna Bradley Burcher |Technical Editor, Advisory | jack henry™

Pronouns she/her/hers

9660 Granite Ridge Drive, San Diego CA 92123

Symitar Documentation Services

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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