Friday 22 January 2016

Modifiers - Dangling, Misplaced and Squinting

Text in purple saying The Purple Pen
All of us have read sentences that are confusing, or actually funny, because they don’t make sense. They leave us wondering at their meaning, or their intention. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.  – (was the elephant in the shooters PJs?)

If a dog does a poo, put it in the litter bin. – (should we put the dog in the bin?)

These sentences are incorrect due to the placement of the ‘modifier’.

A modifier adds information to another element in the sentence. They can be words, phrases or clauses that add description. In clear, well-structured sentences, the modifier is found right next to – either in front or behind – the words they describe.

There are 3 different ways modifiers are placed incorrectly in sentences: Dangling, Misplaced or Squinting. 

Dangling Modifiers

A modifier ‘dangles’ when its place in the sentence gives it nothing to modify. A modifier describes, clarifies, or gives more detail about a subject or concept, but if that subject or concept is not clearly stated in the sentence, then it will ‘dangle’.  
Let’s take a look at some examples:

Incorrect: Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.

Who finished the assignment, the TV?

Corrected: Having finished the assignment, Jill turned on the TV.

Incorrect: Upon entering the doctor’s office, a skeleton caught my eye.

Did a skeleton enter the doctor’s office? Had the person’s eye fallen out? 
Did a skeleton catch it?

Corrected: Upon entering the doctor's office, I immediately noticed a skeleton.

Incorrect: Working all afternoon, the family room was painted.
Did the family room work all afternoon?

Corrected: Working all afternoon, we painted the family room

Incorrect: When smoking behind the bike sheds, the logs were much more comfortable.
Did the logs smoke behind the bike sheds? 

Corrected: When smoking behind the bike sheds, we found sitting on the logs much more comfortable.

In these sentences the first part of the sentence is the modifier; it gives an action, but doesn’t specify who is doing the action. The second part of the sentence should provide that, if it doesn’t, then the modifier dangles. In each example, to correct the sentence the subject has been added.


Misplaced modifiers are the ones that usually end up giving us a smile. These sentences can be read as something other than their intended meaning.

When the modifier is placed too far away from the word or phrase it is modifying, it becomes misplaced.

Here are some examples:

Incorrect: The man walked towards the car carrying the briefcase.

Was the car carrying a briefcase?

Corrected: The man carrying the briefcase walked towards the car.

Incorrect: I slipped on the wet cement running across the road.

Was the wet cement running across the road?

Corrected: While running across the road, I slipped on wet cement

Incorrect: Gemma left her bag on the counter to go and dance.

Did Gemma’s bag dance?

Corrected: To go and dance, Gemma left her bag on the counter.

In these instances the modifiers are not next to the subjects they need to modify. To correct them it is placed next to it – either in front or behind.


A squinting modifier is similar to a misplaced modifier but in these instances it is can modifier either what comes before it, or what comes after. It leaves the reader confused which piece of the sentence it is referring to, because it can refer to both.

Here are some examples. 

Incorrect: Cycling up hills quickly strengthens your quadriceps.

Does quickly refer to cycling up hills, or strengthening your quadriceps?

Corrected: Cycling up hills strengthens your quadriceps quickly.

Incorrect: Taking a moment to think clearly improves your chances.

Does clearly refer to thinking, or improving your chances?

Corrected: Taking a moment to think clearly about the issue improves your chances.

Incorrect: A writer who revises their words often can recognise their mistakes.
Does it mean they revise often, or do they often recognise mistakes?

Corrected: A writer who often revises their words can recognise their mistakes.

OR: A writer who revises their words can often recognise their mistakes.

Moving the word or adding more information is required to clarify the meaning of the sentence.

So there you have it, the point of modifiers and what dangling, squinting and misplaced all relates to. You never thought that sentences could get this complicated, did you? ;)

Have you ever had trouble with modifiers in your sentences? Let me know in the comments.

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