Test Prep

Messy Modifiers: Finding and Correcting Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

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Modifiers aren't just grammatical tools: they're useful ones. (See what I did there?) That's because they not only help with emphasis and clearer communication, but are widely tested across standardized exams like the SAT and ACT. Here's how to use them correctly and maximize your score.

A modifier is a word used to describe something, as I did with "useful" in the opening of this article. The most straightforward modifiers are adjectives and adverbs.


ADJECTIVES

  • the bitter cold
  • the hungry hippo

ADVERBS

  • I go to the grocery store weekly.
  • We're moving tomorrow.

The tricky part is making sure that you put these modifiers in the right place. An incorrect word order leads to misplaced and dangling modifiers that change the meaning of your sentence. Take a look at some modifier mishaps.

Check This Misplaced Modifier

There are two ways misplaced modifiers occur: When the adverb or adjective is in the incorrect position and when the adjectival or adverbial phrase or clause is out of place. In both cases, put simply, the further the modifier gets from the thing it is modifying, the higher the risk of confusion.

Single-Word Example

If you had Michael over as a dinner guest, the first example might apply: He only ate, and did not also clean the dishes or make dessert. However, if you wanted to emphasize that Michael was a picky eater who, out of all the food available, chose only to eat pizza rolls, then you'd want to use the ordering of the second example.

Phrase or Clause Example

The placement of the adjectival phrase completely changes which character, the girl or the friend, owns the car. The key with modifying clauses or phrases is to keep them by the thing they modify or describe. That way you avoid saying someone owns someone else's car!

Can You Recognize a Dangling Modifier?

Sometimes the thing a modifier is describing doesn't appear in the sentence at all. Like an incomplete high-five, it leaves you hanging. Take a closer look at this example to see what we mean:

Practicing yoga in the morning, the peacefulness restored me.

As it reads, peacefulness can practice yoga! That's an interesting idea, but impossible. The thing practicing yoga should actually be the speaker. You'd want to rewrite this sentence to either include the actual subject of the modifier or you'd want to put the modifier in a clause.

Practicing yoga in the morning, I found the peacefulness restorative.

As I was practicing yoga in the morning, the peacefulness restored me.

Let's try another one:

Hungry, the cat food was devoured.

Can cat food be hungry? No, but your fluffy cat, Smalls, can!

Hungry, Smalls devoured the cat food.

Knowing how to correct dangling and misplaced modifiers will help bump up your reading and writing scores on the SAT and ACT. The more you practice using modifiers in your day to day, the easier it'll be to get them right when put to the test. For more grammar practice, check out our books, English and Reading Workout for the ACT and English and Reading Workout for the SAT. Plus, subscribe to our YouTube channel for updated test prep tricks and hints to help you reach your test score goals.