Misplaced Modifiers

Today's topic is misplaced modifiers.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #55

Dangling and Squinting Modifiers

Modifiers are so funny! In addition to misplacing them, you can dangle them and make them squint!

A dangling modifier describes something that isn't even in your sentence. Usually you are implying the subject and taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean—not a good strategy. Here's an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The way the sentence is written, the birds are hiking the trail because they are the only subject present in the sentence. If that's not what you mean, you need to rewrite the sentence to something like, “Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.”

And how do you make a modifier squint? By placing it between two things that it could reasonably modify, meaning the reader has no idea which one to choose.

For example:

Children who laugh rarely are shy.

As written, that sentence could mean two different things: children who rarely laugh are shy, or children who laugh are rarely shy.

In the original sentence (Children who laugh rarely are shy) the word rarely is squinting between the words laugh and are shy. I think “shifty modifier” would be a better name, but I don't get to name these things, so they are called squinting modifiers (or sometimes they are also called two-way modifiers).

So remember to be careful with modifying words and phrases—they are easily misplaced, dangled, and made to squint. My theory is that these problems arise because you know what you mean to say, so the humor of the errors doesn't jump out at you. Misplaced modifiers often crop up in first drafts and are often easily noticed and remedied when you re-read your work the next day.

Congratulations to Mike Benda and Kristi, who won a copy of Bonnie Trenga's book The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier. It's a cute little grammar book that uses a solve-the-mystery format to make writing rules fun. The books are even signed! So congratulations Mike and Kristi.


A new punctuation mark: the pomma point


Thanks to Wesley from Planet Retcon for coming up with the title for the podcast feed: I Uploaded This Show To My Webhost Without A Title. (If you followed me at Twitter, you could have played along too.)


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.