home :: disconnected modifiers lesson
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" 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:
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:
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” 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."
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:
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:
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:
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:
Here are a few more examples of sentences with dangling modifiers and their possible solutions:
Typical Trouble Spots
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