Placement of Modifiers in a Sentence

Keep related parts of a sentence together to avoid the common mistake of a misplaced modifier. If it isn't clear in a sentence which term a modifier applies to, it is a misplaced modifier.

Misplaced modifiers

Any kind of modifier can be misplaced: an adjective, an adverb, or a phrase or clause acting as an adjective or adverb. If you put a modifier in a place it doesn't belong, you risk confusion, awkwardness, and even unintentional humor.

He saw a truck in the driveway that was red and black. (misplaced modifier)

If red and black are the colors of the truck rather than the driveway, write the sentence so that this is clear.

He saw a red and black truck in the driveway.

In the next sentence, it's doubtful that Anna wanted to be cremated before she died, but the placement of the adverbial phrase suggests that's just what she wanted.

Perhaps anticipating what scientists would discover, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the missing Anastasia, requested she be cremated before her death. (misplaced modifier)

Rewrite the sentence to make it clear that the phrase before her death modifies requested, not cremated.

Perhaps anticipating what scientists would discover, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the missing Anastasia, requested before her death that she be cremated.

In the following sentence, the placement of the modifier by Friday leaves us with a question: Did we know by Friday, or would we call for a strike by Friday?

We knew by Friday we would call for a strike. (unclear modifier)

To avoid any possible confusion, add that.

We knew that by Friday we would call for a strike.
or We knew by Friday that we would call for a strike. (depending on the intended meaning)

In these examples, the suggested rewritten versions are not the only possible ways to correct the problem. Revise your own sentences when you find confusing modifiers. You may not only correct the problem but improve the sentence by making it more concise or changing its emphasis.

Note that the placement of even a simple modifier can change the meaning of a sentence, as in the following example.

Not all the home‐team players were available.
All the home‐team players were not available.

Misplaced participial phrases

Among the most common misplaced modifiers are participial phrases. Writers often overlook whether the subject of the participial phrase is clear to the reader.

Advancing across the desolate plains, the hot sun burned the pioneers. (misplaced modifier)

The pioneers are advancing across the plains, not the sun. Make this clear.

Advancing across the desolate plains, the pioneers were burned by the hot sun.
OR The hot sun burned the pioneers as they advanced across the desolate plains. (if you want to avoid the passive voice)

No matter how you decide to rewrite the sentence, make sure the modifier is modifying the right word.

In the following example, the placement of on the hillside between buildings and the participial phrase constructed of highly flammable materials doesn't cause serious confusion. We probably realize that it is the buildings that are constructed of highly flammable materials, not the hillside.

The buildings on the hillside constructed of highly flammable materials were destroyed first. (misplaced modifier)

But you can improve the sentence by placing the modifier next to the word it modifies.

On the hillside, the buildings constructed of highly flammable materials were destroyed first.

In the next example, the question is: In his glass case, was the collector preserving the ancient woman or only her teeth?

The teeth of the ancient woman preserved in a glass case were the pride of his collection. (unclear modifier)

If the answer is her teeth, then rewrite the sentence to better place the participial phrase preserved in a glass case.

The ancient woman's teeth, preserved in a glass case, were the pride of his collection.
OR Preserved in a glass case, the teeth of the ancient woman were the pride of his collection.

Dangling modifiers

Dangling modifiers are similar to misplaced modifiers except that the modifier isn't just separated from the word it modifies; it is missing the word it modifies. The writer has the term being modified in mind—but not on paper.

Having already eaten dinner, the idea of a cheeseburger was unappealing. (dangling modifier)

The dangling participle is the most notorious of the dangling modifiers. In this example, the participial phrase Having already eaten dinner has nothing to modify; it is not modifying idea or cheeseburger. One way to correct the problem is to add the missing word.

Having already eaten dinner, I found the idea of a cheeseburger unappealing.

In the following example, the participial phrase Studying the lecture notes dangles in this sentence.

Studying the lecture notes, the ecosystem structure became clear. (dangling modifier)

The ecosystem structure is not the one studying the lecture notes. Rewrite the sentence to clarify.

The ecosystem structure became clear when I studied the lecture notes.

In the next sentence, the infinitive phrase To win the election is lacking a word to modify; it cannot modify money.

To win the election, money is essential. (dangling modifier)

Rewrite the sentence to add an appropriate subject.

To win the election, a candidate needs money.

In the following sentence, When upset and sad is an elliptical clause, meaning that a word or words have been omitted. In this clause, a subject and verb are missing; they are implied but not stated: When (she was) upset and sad.

When upset and sad, her room was her refuge. (dangling modifier)

Elliptical clauses are acceptable, but a subject must follow one or the clause will dangle.

When upset and sad, she used her room as a refuge.