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Reading Writing Center | Microlab 5


Microlab 5 – Misplaced Modifiers/Orderly Sentences

Meaning depends upon finding the right order for your words. Words that are correctly arranged convey the intended meaning. This microlab will help you:

  1. Understand how words can be ordered for a clear meaning

There are three easy steps in making sure your writing is free of misplaced modifiers:

  1. Identify the modifier
  2. Identify what is being modified
  3. Put what you find in steps 1 and 2 next to each other!

Review of Orderly Sentences

Example 1:

Notice that some words in a sentence may describe or give information about another word in that sentence:

Looking over the fence, Ann saw the pigs.

In this sentence, “looking over the fence” gives us information about what Ann is doing. A word or group of words that describes or gives information about another group of words in the sentence is called a modifier. We say that a modifier modifies another word or group of words in the sentence:

Looking over the fence, Ann saw the pigs	

This is an orderly sentence because the modifier stands near the word being modified. Sentences lose their orderly arrangement when modifiers are too far apart from the words modified. Misplaced modifiers can cause confusion or misunderstanding:

Ann saw the pigs looking over the fence. 	

Notice that the placement of a modifier affects the meaning of a sentence, sometimes in a silly way. Did the writer want to describe pigs looking over the fence? In a clear, orderly sentence modifiers are found near the words they describe:

Looking over the fence, Ann saw the pigs.	

With this placement of the modifier we understand that Ann, not the pigs, looks over the fence.

Example 2:

Any pizza pleases Tony topped with extra cheese.

Does the writer want to say that Tony is topped with extra cheese? No, but the misplaced modifier brings that picture to mind. Misplaced modifiers often create odd or confusing meanings.

Any pizza, topped with extra cheese, pleases Tony.	
Tony is pleased with any pizza topped with extra cheese.

Other Examples:

Incorrect:   The jockey rode the horse in red silks.
Correct:      The jockey in red silks rode the horse.

Incorrect:   We found the love letter in the trash still smelling of perfume.
Correct:      We found the love letter, still smelling of perfume, in the trash.

Repairing Disorderly Sentences:

To repair disorderly sentences containing misplaced modifiers, you may often have to reword portions of the sentence. For example, try to repair the modification error in the following sentence:

Staying inside, the warm fire kept Joe toasty.

Now the modifier is next to the word it modifies:

Staying inside, Joe felt toasty beside the warm fire.

Beginning of a Sentence Warning:

One of the most common modification errors occurs when modifiers at the beginning of sentences (like “staying inside” from above) do not modify a nearby word. Guard against this common error in your own writing by making sure that modifiers at the beginning of sentences are closely followed by the words they modify. Can you spot the modification error in this sentence?

Having grown up on a farm, the city seemed noisy to the twins.

Because the modifier does not stand near the word it modifies, the meaning of the sentence is unclear.

Having grown up on a farm, the twins found the city noisy.

Now the modifier stands near the word it describes!

Carefully Placing Words:

Words like “often,” “only,” “always,” and “almost” must be placed carefully in the sentence to avoid double meanings. Notice the two possible meanings produced by the placement of “often” in this sentence:

Kay made a promise often to visit her relatives.

What does the writer mean? Does Kay make her promises often or does she visit often?

Kay made a promise to visit her relatives often.
Kay often made a promise to visit her relatives.

Key Points to Remember:

  1. Place modifiers as close as possible to the words they modify.
  2. Make sure that the intended meaning of the sentence is clear and that an unintended interpretation is not possible.
  3. Watch the placement of words like “almost,” “often,” “only,” and “always” to avoid double meanings.
  4. Remember the Three Steps:
    • Identify the modifier
    • Identify what is being modified
    • Put what you find in steps 1 and 2 next to each other!