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Misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers and squinting modifiers

By Mary Morel | June 2017

What’s wrong with these sentences that Liz Boulter gives in her Guardian article, Excuse me, but I think your modifier is dangling?misplaced modifier

‘Hopping briskly through the vegetable garden, John saw a toad.

Gently warmed in the oven and smothered in cream cheese, my friends loved the bagels.

To be really filling, you could add some boiled potatoes to the salad.’

They all have modifier problems.

Let’s backtrack and define modifiers. Modifiers add more information to elements within a sentence.

They are influential political leaders. (premodifier)
The people hid in bunkers during raids. (postmodifier)

When it is not clear what’s being modified, the sentence may have a misplaced, dangling or squinting modifier.

Some other examples:

  • Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  • I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.
  • With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena.
  • The girl was consoled by the nurse who had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
  • I saw an accident walking down the street.
  • She carefully studied the Picasso hanging in the art gallery with her friend.
  • Freshly painted, Jim left the room to dry.

Misplaced modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are words or phrases that are in the wrong place.

The 1988 Lockerbie plane bomber, who has prostate cancer, wants to be freed from a Scottish jail where he is serving a life sentence on compassionate grounds. (The Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 2009)

This sentence would be clearer as:

The 1988 Lockerbie plane bomber, who has prostate cancer, wants to be freed on compassionate grounds from a Scottish jail where he is serving a life sentence.

Dangling modifiers

A phrase is ‘dangling’ or ‘detached’ when it becomes associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all.

Running to catch the bus, Betty’s umbrella blew inside out. (running umbrella?)
Walking down the street, the skyscrapers loomed over her. (walking skyscrapers?)

We use many dangling modifiers without causing any ambiguity (regarding, considering, provided that, assuming) and some great literature has dangling modifiers that delight rather than confuse.

’Tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me.
Shakespeare, Hamlet

But sometimes they can be jar or be unintentionally funny.

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges. (rotting brother?)
Quoted in Tom Sant’s Persuasive Business Proposals.

Squinting modifiers

Squinting modifiers create ambiguity and such sentences can be interpreted in different ways.

Children who play in the sun often have a high risk of skin cancer.

This sentence could mean that all children who play in the sun have a high risk of skin cancer, or that children who play in the sun a lot are at high risk of skin cancer.

Learn more

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