What Is a Misplaced Modifier? | Definition & Examples

Sentence and word structure updated on  March 15, 2024 5 min read

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is separated from what it is intended to modify in a sentence. Misplaced modifiers can create ambiguity or change the meaning of the sentence.

Misplaced modifier example
The children ran through the streets dressed in costumes.

In the example above, the modifier “dressed in costumes” modifies the noun “the streets.” This implies that the streets are wearing costumes rather than the children.

To fix this mistake, the modifier needs to be moved next to the words it modifies: “the children.”

Corrected modifier examples
Dressed in costumes, the children ran through the streets.
The children, dressed in costumes, ran through the streets.

What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes another word, phrase, or clause. Modifiers can be adjectives, adverbs, phrases, or clauses. Their function is to give additional information. When using modifiers, they should be placed directly next to the information they describe.

Modifier examples
The gift was left unopened.
The package arrived late.
Place the letter into the postbox and close the door.
We made reservations at a restaurant that is highly rated.

Because modifiers can occur in different parts of a sentence depending on their structure and what they modify, misplaced modifiers are a common writing mistake. Recognizing modifiers within a sentence and checking that they are next to the information they describe is a useful way of ensuring that the modifier is positioned correctly.

When modifiers appear where they don’t belong, confusion can result.

How to fix a misplaced modifier

Fixing misplaced modifiers is a matter of moving the words into the correct position in relation to what they describe. Modifiers should be placed immediately before or after the information they modify.

Misplaced

Corrected

We voted on election day at the school.

We voted at the school on election day.

Ted and Sabrina scrutinized the match while eating carefully.

Ted and Sabrina carefully scrutinized the match while eating.

I read a detailed student’s essay this morning.

I read a student’s detailed essay this morning.

The king offered a roast duck to his servant that was buttered and golden.

The king offered a roast duck that was buttered and golden to his servant.

Adverb placement

Adverbs are modifiers that describe a verb, adjective, or another adverb. They can give information about how something is done, how often, or to what degree. Common adverbs include just, almost, hardly, even, only, especially, and barely, and their placement within a sentence produces important changes in meaning.

Adverb placement

Meaning

We just called the restaurant to check our reservation.

We called the restaurant immediately before the present moment.

We called the restaurant just to check our reservation.

We called the restaurant with the purpose of checking on the reservation.

I almost had time to finish my makeup.

I was close to having time to finish my makeup, but I ultimately didn’t have time.

I had time to almost finish my makeup.

I had enough time to come close to complete applying my makeup.

Note
Understanding which part of your sentence an adverb is modifying is key to writing clearly. The QuillBot Grammar Checker can streamline your editing process and point out issues with modifiers and other errors.

Ambiguous modifiers

Even correctly placed modifiers can sometimes be ambiguous and lead to confusion for your reader. Ambiguous modifiers (or squinting modifiers) occur when an adverb could describe two different words, phrases, or clauses; this results in an unclear sentence, even if the sentence is grammatically correct.

Ambiguous modifier example
Putting aside money often will result in a decent nest egg.

Here, does the sentence mean that putting money away at frequent intervals will result in a decent nest egg, or does it mean that putting away money usually results in a decent nest egg? The placement of the modifier “often” doesn’t clearly indicate whether it describes the words that come before it or after it.

Ambiguous modifiers

Unambiguous modifiers

Putting aside money often will result in a decent nest egg.

Putting money aside will often result in a decent nest egg. Putting money aside oftentimes results in a decent nest egg. Often, putting money aside will result in a decent nest egg.

Clara’s knees ache when it rains and she has to walk around.

When it rains, Clara’s knees ache, and she has to walk around to soothe them. Clara’s knees ache when it rains, and she has to walk around to soothe them. Clara’s knees ache when it rains and she also has to walk around.

We found the man in the yellow shirt annoying people.

We found the man in the yellow shirt who was annoying people. We found the man in the yellow shirt that was annoying people.

Ilsa told me on Tuesday she would call.

On Tuesday, Ilsa told me she would call. Ilsa told me that she would call on Tuesday.

Recommended articles

Do you want to know more about verbs, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Verbs

Commonly confused words

Reasoning

Past participle

Conversate vs converse

Logical fallacy

Prepositional phrase

Worse vs worst

Ecological fallacy

Split infinitive

Row vs column

Base rate fallacy

Verb phrase

Your vs you're

Appeal to emotion fallacy

Dangling participle

Has vs have

False cause fallacy


Frequently asked questions about misplaced modifiers

What’s the difference between dangling and misplaced modifiers?

A dangling modifier is a modifier that does not have a subject within the sentence. In contrast, a misplaced modifier does have a subject, but the modifier and the subject being modified are separated.

The following sentence has a dangling modifier:
“Eager to leave the room, the presentation ended early.”
In this sentence, there is no subject indicating who was eager to leave the room.

In contrast, this sentence has a misplaced modifier:
“The frazzled woman’s hair was difficult to comb.”
The placement of the modifier “frazzled” makes it unclear if it is the woman who was frazzled or her hair.

A clearer structure would be the following:
“The woman’s frazzled hair was difficult to comb.”

What is a squinting modifier?

A squinting modifier, also known as an ambiguous modifier, is a modifier that could possibly modify two different parts of the sentence.

The following sentence has a squinting modifier:
“Paolo works in a restaurant serving shrimp.”
In this sentence, it is unclear if Paolo’s specific job is serving shrimp in a restaurant or if the restaurant is dedicated specifically to shrimp.

This can be clarified as either of the following two sentences:

  • “Paolo works serving shrimp in a restaurant.” [indicating that Paolo serves shrimp]
  • “Paolo works in a restaurant that serves shrimp.” [indicating that the restaurant serves shrimp]

How can I identify a misplaced modifier?

To identify a misplaced modifier, it is important to understand which word(s) in a sentence a modifier is describing. If the modifier is far away from those words, it likely needs to be moved closer. 

Example:
“Running away with its tail between his legs, the child laughed after frightening the dog.”

In this sentence, the subject of the modifying clause “Running away with his tail between his legs” clearly refers to the dog, but another subject, “the child” is squeezed between the clause and what it describes. 

Better phrasings would be as follows:

  • “The child laughed after frightening the dog, which ran away with its tail between its legs.”
  • “Running away with its tail between its legs, the dog had been frightened by the child, who laughed afterward.”
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Alexandra Rongione

Alexandra has a master’s degree in literature and cultural studies. She has taught English as a foreign language for a range of levels and ages and has also worked as a literacy tutor.

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