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Common Writing Error – the Misplaced Modifier

One of the most common writing errors is the misplaced modifier. Just like the dangling participle, it not only confuses the reader but can also be quite funny because of the meaning it gives to the sentence. What exactly is a misplaced modifier?

A modifier is a word or phrase that describes something else; and, therefore, should be placed as close as possible to what it describes. Sometimes this modifier is misplaced – that is, it is not placed close enough, thus giving the sentence a different meaning, usually an illogical one.  For example:

He had a hot bowl of soup.

What is hot? The bowl? The modifier hot is placed before bowl, so it’s as if it’s modifying bowl. But what was actually meant was  –

He had a bowl of hot soup.

Another example:

The stolen man’s bag was found the next day.

Stolen man? Sounds funny doesn’t it? What the writer really meant was that the bag was stolen. So the correct way of saying this should be:

The man’s stolen bag was found the next day.

See the difference in the meaning of the sentence when the modifier ‘stolen’ was misplaced?

The most commonly misplaced modifiers are only, barely, just, nearly, and the like.  Why? Take a look at these examples:

The girl only drank milk.

The girl drank only milk.

Both these sentences are correct, but they mean two different things. The first one means that all that the girl did with milk was drink it. The second sentence means that the girl drank nothing but milk. If both the sentences are correct, then what is the problem? The problem is confusion. Confusion because very often when the writer wants to say one thing, he says the other … just by misplacing the modifier ‘only’, and it doesn’t fit into the context. When something doesn’t fit into the context as a whole, it becomes confusing.

So, what does this mean? This means that we have to be very careful in placing a modifier. We should place it as close as possible to the word (or words) it modifies.

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