Technical Writing ToolBox

A Blog on Technical Writing

Getting Rid of Misplaced Modifiers

Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that restricts or provide additional information about other words, phrases, or clauses. Modifiers can be adjectives or adverbs. Modifiers that appear before the head are called premodifiers and modifiers that appear after the head are called postmodifiers.

We have a certain amount of freedom in deciding where to place our modifiers in a sentence:

We rowed the boat vigorously.
We vigorously rowed the boat.
Vigorously we rowed the boat.

Modifiers must be placed as close as possible to the words they modify.

While a correctly placed modifier enhances the meaning of the sentence, a misplaced or awkwardly placed modifier can disrupt the flow of thoughts and can create confusion in the meaning of a sentence. You can improve your writing quite a bit by paying attention to misplaced modifiers.

Slippery Modifiers

Certain modifiers are slippery; they slide into the wrong position in the sentence.  The most dangerous are only, almost, already, even, just, nearly, merely, and always. Only slides out of place nine times out of ten. E. H. Weiss in his book 100 Writing Remedies suggests to  place the slippery modifiers just before the terms they modify.

I only borrowed the pen. [I.e., I didn’t steal it.]
I borrowed only the pen. [I.e., not the pencil]

Examples of Misplaced Modifiers

Let’s take a look at these examples of awkwardly placed modifiers from the book Technical Communication in the Twenty-First Century:

Example #1

Original Sentence: The lab apparatus was returned to the manufacturing plant where it had been developed five years earlier by parcel post.

Now examine the end portion of the above sentence. Does by parcel post tell about the manner in which the apparatus was shipped or developed? Since by parcel post is not close to what it modifies, the sentence is unclear, and readers may incorrectly interpret it.

Revised Sentence: The lab apparatus was returned by parcel post to the manufacturing plant where it had been developed five years earlier.

Example #2

Original Sentence: Early in the meeting even the CEO couldn’t hear the speaker next to him.

Revised Sentence: Early in the meeting the CEO couldn’t hear even the speaker next to him.

Example #3

Original Sentence: The technician, following an extensive investigation, was cleared of all charges of liability.

Revised Sentence: Following an extensive investigation, the technician was cleared of all charges of liability.

How a misplaced modifier can kill you!

Ashley Crowe posted a good story about how misplaced modifiers can cause death!

A woman hires a hitman to get rid of her husband. On the day before he was supposed to do the deed, he met with her in the park. She slipped him an envelope with the money in it and says “Kill the man in the Mercedes with an American flag.”

It puzzled the hitman why she wants him to use an American Flag to kill her husband. But he was hired to do a job and he decided he would do it no matter how absurd it seemed.

The next morning, he receives a call from the angry wife. She accuses him of not doing the job and he replies, “I don’t know what you are talking about! I dropped him and the flag I killed him with in the river, it’s not possible for him to be alive.

She pauses and then asks, “Why would you kill him with an American Flag.

I thought it was weird too but, you said ‘Kill the man in the black Mercedes with an American Flag’ so, I snick up on the black Mercedes and choked the man inside with an American Flag.

The woman sighs hen replies, “No, I didn’t want you to kill him with an American Flag! The car my husband drives has an American Flag across the back windshield!

That is how a misplaced modifier can kill you!

What do you think about misplaced modifiers? Do you have a special trick to find and cure misplaced modifiers? Leave a comment and let me know.

Related Articles

The Art of Concise Writing

Story of the comma family: The Oxford, Harvard, and Serial comma

Make your Sentences Slim (by removing 35 Wordy Phrases)


7 responses to “Getting Rid of Misplaced Modifiers

  1. Niels Grundtvig Nielsen May 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

    I’d prefer “The lab apparatus was returned, by parcel post, to the manufacturing plant where it had been developed five years earlier.” Using commas or brackets helps flag a piece of information that’s a bit less important; in fact, I’m not sure that a comma before “by parcel post” wouldn’t also have reduced any ambiguity in the original.

  2. Tom Guarnera May 4, 2012 at 11:30 am

    In Tech Writing, I prefer to simplify the writing even more. “The lab apparatus was returned by parcel post to the manufacturer. It had been developed at the manufacturing plant five years earlier.”

    Better yet, instead of saying “the manufacturer”, give us the actual company name (Johnson Controls). This solves two problems. It provides more detail to the information and removed the use of a similar words in a paragraph.

    I know this is getting away from your initial point, but I find it best to keep the writing simple and provide the most information. Compound sentences with extra punctuation slows the reader down unnecessarily. By the way, i am not saying there is anything truly wrong. This is just my particular way of communicating.

  3. nitinberi May 9, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Good topic raised by Gurpreet. Modifiers have always been bane of writers’ lives. But my concern here is about Ashley’s example. I think the sentence she has the modifier placed at best position.
    I guess that by adding an action verb would have cleared the thought: Kill the man “driving” the Mercedes with an American flag.
    Moreover, had there been a misplaced puncutation (comma), hitman would have took it wrong:
    Kill the man in the Mercedes, with an American flag.
    Hope, I have not confused you guys more! If I have, then will come with more examples of funny modifiers.

  4. Pingback: Entry # 4: Resources for Technical Writing – Technical Writing Insider

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