What is a modifier error?
Let’s look at these tricky grammar errors and how to avoid them
Some of these terms might sound odd, but they belong to real grammatical errors, sometimes the result of which can be quite amusing, if not confusing. But once you learn what the errors are and how they work, they’re easy enough to spot and fix.
A dangling modifier (or dangling/hanging participle) is a phrase that has been left out in the cold because it has nothing to modify. Most commonly, dangling modifiers appear at the start of a sentence, but wherever they appear, they make readers pause in confusion.
Incorrect: Sitting under a tree, the shade felt cool.
Here, the phrase ‘sitting under a tree’ is modifying ‘the shade’ – the first subject that follows. While there often is shade under a tree, it doesn’t sit there feeling cool. So the real subject is missing.
To fix this issue, you need to include a true subject (a noun or pronoun) for the phrase to modify, else rewrite the phrase as a subordinate clause.
Adding a noun or pronoun
- Sitting under a tree, Sarah felt cool in the shade.
- Sitting under a tree, she felt cool in the shade.
Rewriting the phrase as a subordinate clause
- Because Sarah was sitting under a shady tree, she felt cool.
- Because she was sitting in the shade of a tree, Sarah felt cool.
- Sitting under a shady tree, Sarah felt cool.
Rewriting to remove the filter word ‘felt’
- Sarah leaned back against the tree, enjoying its cool shade.
- She relaxed in the cool shade of the tree.
A misplaced modifier is a clause, phrase or word that doesn’t sit next to the subject it is meant to be modifying. Here’s where we sometimes see a humorous or confusing outcome.
Incorrect: He proposed to her under a chestnut tree with a big smile.
Did the tree have a big smile? Unless the text is a fantasy novel, probably not.
Incorrect: She ordered an orange cake for his birthday yesterday.
Was his birthday yesterday? No, she ordered the cake yesterday.
- With a big smile, he proposed to her under a chestnut tree.
- Yesterday, she ordered an orange cake for his birthday.
A squinting modifier ‘looks both ways’. This means it could be read as modifying the words placed before or after it, resulting in ambiguity.
Incorrect: After I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon I ate the cream off the top.
This could be read as ‘I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon’ or ‘with a long spoon, I ate the cream off the top’.
- After I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon, I ate the cream off the top.
- After I stirred my iced coffee, I ate the cream off the top with a long spoon.
Incorrect: Cats that eat grass often throw up on carpets.
This could be read as ‘cats eat grass often’ or ‘they often throw up on their owner’s carpet’.
- Cats that eat grass, often throw up on their owner’s carpet.
- Cats that eat grass often, throw up on their owner’s carpet.