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Disconnected Modifiers

In this module we will briefly examine how modifiers function in a sentence and explore how problems with modifiers arise. We will then learn how to identify and correct misplaced and dangling modifiers.

What is a modifier?

A modifier is any word or phrase in a sentence that describes or “modifies” some other word in a sentence. Modifiers add descriptive information to a sentence and call the reader's attention to what the writer feels is important. In the sentence below, for example, we find several modifiers:

Ann's favorite black handbag, the one she always carries, was stolen last night.

"Ann's favorite black" is a cluster of adjectives describing the handbag (the possessive form of a proper name is an adjective because it describes a possession). "Always" is an adverb describing the verb "carries." And "last" is an adjective describing "night." The sentence also includes a descriptive appositive phrase: "the one she always carries." Most of the descriptive modifiers call the reader's attention to the handbag, letting readers know which one as well as how Ann felt about the bag. Without modifiers our sentences would be pretty bare.

What is a disconnected modifier?

Lets look at a few examples of sentences with disconnected modifiers:

To make sure there would be enough for everyone, three pizzas were ordered.
Matt is coming with us to the movies along with Allison.
The matador stared at the bull, the sweat pouring down his face.
While waiting for the bus, there was a traffic accident right in front of me.

Each sentence above has a similar problem: each sentence is unclear because of a problem with the connection between a modifier and the word the modifier is supposed to apply to. Such disconnects cause the reader to stumble a bit trying to follow the logic of the sentence, or worse, to get stuck, and to lose track of the overall meaning of the writer’s text.

Revised to connect the modifiers to their logical subjects, these sentences are much easier to follow:

To make sure there would be enough for everyone, Paul ordered three pizzas.
Matt and Allison are coming with us to the movies.
The sweat pouring down his face, the matador stared at the bull.
While I was waiting for the bus, I saw a traffic accident right in front of me.

How do problems with modifiers arise?

Typically, disconnected modifiers happen because when writers put their ideas on paper or a computer screen, they are concerned with organizing their thoughts and developing their ideas rather than with correct grammatical expression of those ideas. And for this reason, even experienced writers make sentence mistakes. However, experienced writers assume that their prose is going to need to be revised for correctness and that revision is a necessary part of writing. They also know where to look for mistakes. Sentences written in passive voice can be a source of trouble, as can sentences with limiters like "only" and "sometimes," or sentences that begin with long modifiers. We will look at all of these scenarios next.

How does one identify and correct a disconnected modifier?

The first step in finding disconnected modifiers, as with finding most any sentence level mistake, is to be suspicious of your own writing. Don't assume that because you understand your ideas, your reader will, too. Instead, assume that faulty sentences are hidden there in the text, and that you will need to engage in a seek-and-destroy mission to find them out.

Scan each sentence to locate the core of the sentence: i.e., the subject, the sentence verb(s), and any direct or indirect objects so that any modifiers in the sentence become easy to identify. Give it a try in the following sentence:

Amanda wants to watch that new show on TV tonight.

“Amanda” is the subject in this sentence; i.e., the one who performs the action of the sentence (Amanda “wants”). The sentence verb is “wants” (what the subject is doing). The direct object of the sentence is actually the whole phrase “to watch that new show on TV tonight.”

Typically, modifiers in a sentence add information to one of the elements in the core sentence, calling attention to what the writer thinks is important or needs further description, though occasionally modifiers add information to other modifiers rather than to the core (see note below). In the sentence above, the writer calls our attention to what Amanda wants to watch by adding several modifiers: the adjectives that and new to modify "show," and the phrase on TV tonight, also to modify "show" (telling us when the show is on).

(William Faulkner is renowned for layering modifiers in his sentences to produce great depth of meaning with little forward movement in the action of the story. Consider the following sentence: "Calico-coated, small-bodied, with delicate legs and pink faces in which their mis-matched eyes rolled wild and subdued, they huddled, gaudy motionless and alert, wild as deer, deadly as rattlesnakes, quiet as doves."

Misplaced modifiers

Things go wrong when modifiers are not well connected to their subjects. One source of trouble is misplacement of a modifier. The rule is that modifiers should be placed next to the word they modify; the reader expects writers to follow the rule, and confusion results when modifiers are in another place in the sentence. Consider the above sentence with a modifier presented out of place:

On TV tonight, Amanda wants to watch that new show.

Not so clear, right? With placement of the modifier “on TV tonight” next to Amanda, it appears as if the writer is saying Amanda is on TV tonight. The modifier should be next to “new show” to make the sentence logical.

Here are a few more examples of misplaced modifiers:

Isaac went to the REM concert in my car.
corrected: Isaac went in my car to the REM concert.

Rochelle almost beat everyone in the class in the mile race.
corrected: Rochelle beat almost everyone in the class in the mile race.

Dangling modifiers

Another problem with modifiers arises when the modifier refers to a subject that is not actually named in the sentence. Such modifiers are said to be “dangling” because like a dangling thread in a blanket, they are not woven into the fabric of the sentence. Take a look at the following example:

When buying a new cell phone, many factors should be considered.

The opening modifier "when buying a new cell phone" suggests a person as the subject (people buy cell phones); however, the subject of the modifier in this sentence is “many factors." That combination is not logical: factors do not buy cell phones. The sentence needs to be revised so that the modifier and the rest of the sentence fit together logically:

corrected: When buying a new cell phone, consumers should consider many factors.

Here are a few more examples of sentences with dangling modifiers and their possible solutions:

My French improved dramatically by listening to the French language tapes.
corrected: My French improved dramatically after I listened to the French language tapes.

As you come across the bridge, there are two main towers you pass under.
corrected:  As you come across the bridge, you pass under two main towers.

Typical Trouble Spots

  • Use of passive voice can lead to modifier problems (as in the last example in the previous section). Watch out for shifts from active to passive voice between an opening modifier and the rest of the sentence.
  • General transitional phrases like “in conclusion,” “in terms of,” “from what I can see,” “thus,” “regarding,” etc. are often used improperly. Make sure that the phrase actually modifies the word next to it; if not, get rid of the phrase (often these phrases are unnecessary anyway) and rewrite the sentence another way. For example, in the sentence “In terms of your letter, I don’t know when I will be coming to visit,” the introductory phrase points vaguely to a letter, and the rest of the sentence points to the writer’s thoughts about that letter. A better sentence, correcting this disconnect is “In response to your question about my coming to visit, I have to say that I am not sure when I can come.” The sentence is longer, but much more logical; the modifier implies a person who makes a response, and the subject of the sentence is a person.
  • Problems can arise with placement of limiting modifiers between subject and verb. Consider the ambiguity in the sentence below:
  • Wrong: Maria only wants a salad.
    Right: Only Maria wants a salad. or Maria wants only a salad.

    Wrong: Justin occasionally likes to go to a really expensive restaurant.
    Right: Occasionally, Justin likes to go to a really expensive restaurant.

  • Long modifiers at the beginning or end of a sentence can be a source of trouble. Be sure to check the subject implied by the modifier against the actual subject the modifier refers to.



Video Lesson
Video Lesson


1. What is a modifier?

2. What is a disconnected modifier?

3. How do problems with modifiers arise?

4. How does one identify and correct a disconnected modifier?

5. Typical trouble spots


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