Muddled Modifiers -->

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Muddled Modifiers


Rachel Grammer explains modifiers.
By Rachel Grammer, Writing Consultant

Confession #1: I am a grammar geek.

Now go ahead—say it. You know you want to, and I know you’re thinking it: Her last name is so appropriate! I mean, with a last name like Grammer, I must have been destined for a career in English, right? Perhaps it was fate, but that’s beside the point.

Confession #2:  I giggle audibly at unusual sentences (sometimes much to the frustration of those coworkers whose cubicles are next to mine).

I can’t help it. I mean, who can avoid laughing at the idea of a duck with pigtails? Well, let me explain. Modifiers are descriptive words or phrases, and they often end up in the wrong spot. Take this example sentence:

The girl ran after the duck with pigtails.

This is a classic example of a misplaced modifier. The phrase with pigtails is really meant to describe the girl. However, the writer separated the modifier from what it was describing, so the sentence seems to be talking about a duck with pigtails.

Okay, so maybe you’re not into ducks, but misplaced modifiers can cause some serious misunderstandings. Take for example these sentences:

The man went to see the counselor who was having nightmares. (Would you want to see this counselor? A counselor who has nightmares concerns me a bit.)
The dog ate the bone that leapt across the fence. (We need a new sign to hang on the fence: Watch out for leaping bones!)

Dangling modifiers can be just as fun, too! Dangling modifiers usually begin a sentence with a description of something, and that something should come immediately afterward. However, that is not always the case, such as in these examples:

Running down the stairs, my high heels made me trip. (It sounds as though the shoes are running on their own. Does anyone else have flashbacks to the fight scene in Beauty and the Beast?)

Sitting atop her head, her cat pawed at the feathered hat. (I giggle a little at the idea of a very sophisticated lady with a cat atop her head.)

Now maybe you’re not as into grammar as I am, but come on—you have to admit sometimes language can simply be amusing.  So whether you’re in the middle of your dissertation proofreading process with your hands on your head (literally about to tear your hair out), or whether you are proofreading your first course paper and feeling like you want to punch your computer screen, take a break on us. View some of your mistakes with a light heart, and know that others make them too


  1. Thank you for a great laugh! I am getting ready to begin my capstone project for my Ed.D. in Higher Education and Adult Learning. I plan to study scholarly writing needs of adult learners in graduate school. I have taught research writing to adults, and I have worked as a dissertation editor for a local graduate school. Student papers include humorous statements similar to the examples you have listed, but rarely do I have the opportunity to chuckle over so many misplaced modifiers at one time!

  2. Being a genius, this blog was written by my daughter. Well Done!