Monday, December 22, 2008

Editing Tip of the Week: Avoiding Misplaced Modifiers

We all want to produce clear, concise writing. We spell check, read out loud to catch poor sentence structure, ask others to proofread, and then go through it all again. But sometimes there are mistakes that go unnoticed. One of the most common mistakes involves misplaced modifiers. The simple rule of placing modifiers with the words they modify is not easily followed, according to Sharon Schuman at the University of Oregon. In her Top Ten Tips for Effective Writing, she refers to an example from Strunk and White that illustrates the problem. In the sentence He only found two mistakes, the meaning is ambiguous. Does the writer mean that there were more than two mistakes? It’s unclear. By moving the sentence around to read He found only two mistakes, the sentence leaves nothing to question.

If a sentence sounds unintentionally ambiguous or just plain awkward, it could be due to a misplaced modifier. It could be an adverb like only, just, merely, nearly, or almost. Or it could be a misplaced phrase or clause that changes the intended meaning of the sentence. I found one of the funniest examples of this on Towson University’s online writing support site. In the sentence The waiter served the dinner roll to the woman that was well-buttered, it appears that the woman is well-buttered, not the dinner roll. Although the roll is the more obvious choice for being the buttered subject, the phrasing is still awkward. Changing it to The waiter served the well-buttered dinner roll to the woman erases any chance of confusion or laughter.

To avoid writing humorous sentences when none are intended, make sure modifiers go with the words they are meant to modify. This may require more than simply moving the modifier. You may need to restructure the whole sentence to make it clear and concise.

For more information, visit for Strunk and White’s tips; ;


  1. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Later, I only wished I had read this sooner.

  2. Anonymous2:44 PM

    These things are to confusing.:/

  3. Yeah, the kids I tutor think they're confusing too. You're not the only one. Let's use an example from movie culture. Have you seen "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"? At one point, Val Kilmer tells a bad guy, "I want you to picture a bullet in your head."

    The modifier "in your head" is acting as an adverb, telling us where. But, as the bad guy points out, the meaning is ambiguous. Does good ol' Val mean "Picture (in your head) a bullet" or "Picture the bullet from my gun entering your brain"?

    This is all because the modifier (in your head) is misplaced.

    Other than this instance, Val's grammar is quite good in the movie, especially when he points out to Robert Downey Jr. that "badly" is an adverb.