Misplaced Modifiers: Babies Who Smoke

misplaced modifiers

There should be penalties for women having babies who smoke.
What? Babies smoking? Has to be something wrong there.

I opened the door to the delivery man wearing my best party dress.
But why on earth was he wearing it?

Seriously, though, the big problem with these sentences is a common one: it’s the problem of misplaced modifiers

They are everywhere. They can totally mangle the meaning of a sentence. And, in some cases, they are just downright comical.

Find out how to spot them (and fix them).

What are misplaced modifiers?

modifier is a group of words that adds meaning to (or modifies) another word. You should place the modifier as close as possible to that word.

Misplaced modifiers create ambiguity or just nonsense, as in the two examples above.

Here’s another:

She rode past on a grey horse wearing a pink lacy hat.
And I’m sure the horse looked very fetching in it.

Warning: This final example is very revealing!

Amelia wore a simple, sleeveless white wedding dress with a plunging neckline which fell all the way to the floor.

Can you fix the four examples above?

Have a go and then read on.

How to correct misplaced modifiers

It’s not difficult. All you have to do is reword the sentences slightly so they make proper sense.

Here are the correct versions of the first three. I have placed the modifiers (in bold) next to the words they modify (‘women’, ‘she’, ‘I’)

There should be penalties for women who smoke when having babies.

(or, better still)

There should be penalties for women who smoke while they are pregnant.

Wearing a pink lacy hat, she rode past on a grey horse.

Wearing my best party dress, I opened the door to the delivery man.

A tricky example

Now look again at the fourth example. This one was more difficult because there were two modifiers (in bold).

Amelia wore a simple, sleeveless white wedding dress with a plunging neckline (1) which fell all the way to the floor (2).

The first modifier is correct; it adds meaning to ‘wedding dress’. The second one is misplaced, because it sounds as though it is modifying ‘neckline’.

The wedding dress was beautiful and revealed a charming décolletage but there was no neck to floor reveal, which would have been totally inappropriate and quite shocking. It was the hemline, not the neckline, that ‘fell all the way to the floor’.

An easy fix for the sentence would have been to change the misplaced modifier (‘which fell all the way to the floor’) into an adjective (‘floor-length’), and put it before the noun it was supposed to describe (‘wedding dress’).

The result:

Amelia wore a simple, sleeveless, white, floor-length wedding dress with a plunging neckline.

Can you identify this misplaced modifier?

I enjoy receiving my Word of the Day from Dictionary.com, but I was a little disappointed when I saw this entry:

Definition for ‘putsch’

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 problem. 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 ‘a plotted revolt’, not to ‘a government’.

The modifier is definitely in the wrong place.

The definition should read:

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

What is a dangling modifier?

A ‘dangling modifier’ is another type of misplaced modifier. 

An inexperienced writer will often put one into a sentence to add meaning to a word or phrase that might be in the writer’s mind but certainly hasn’t been included in the sentence.

As a result, the modifier just ‘dangles’, with no purpose.

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?

Obviously, that’s not right.

Because it has nothing to do but dangle, the modifier ‘At the age of nine’ attaches itself to whatever word or phrase it happens to be closest to, which is the subject of the sentence, ‘my mother’.

Now it’s a dangling and a misplaced modifier — with hilarious results.

Here it is again:

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

How might you fix it?

It’s not really difficult. The best way is to rearrange or rewrite the sentence so it says exactly what you want it to say.

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

Question: Who was aged nine? The sensible answer is ‘I was’.

The dangling modifier was supposed to add meaning to ‘I’, which didn’t even appear in the sentence. To fix it, we could put the ‘I’ in.

At the age of nine, I was told by my mother about the birds and the bees.

Because it uses passive voice, though, this sentence sounds clumsy. It’s better to write the sentence in active voice, putting in a new clause, with ‘I’ as its subject.

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

The supporting clause (‘When I was nine years old’), gives more information about the main clause, by saying when it happened.

You might think misplaced, or dangling, modifiers are just minor details but, when they confuse the meaning of your message or make it sound ridiculous, your potential clients will notice.

It isn’t too hard to get it right. A little logic will do it.

See more ways to Lift Your Language.