What is a Misplaced Modifier?

Groucho Marx
"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know" (Groucho Marx). (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that doesn't clearly relate to the word or phrase it is intended to modify. In prescriptive grammar, misplaced modifiers are usually regarded as errors.

Mark Lester and Larry Beason point out that misplaced modifiers "do not make sentences ungrammatical. Misplaced modifiers are wrong because they say something the writer did not intend to say" (McGraw-Hill Handbook, 2012).

A misplaced modifier can usually be corrected by moving it closer to the word or phrase it should be describing.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Plastic bags are a favorite of grocers because of their price, about 2 cents per bag compared to 5 cents for paper. Used widely since the 1970s, environmentalists now estimate between 500 billion to a trillion bags are produced annually worldwide."
    (Savannah Morning News, January 30, 2008)
  • “An hour later a chubby man in a wrinkled suit with pasty skin walked in.”
    (David Baldacci, The Innocent. Grand Central Publishing, 2012)
  • A Swiss farmer has discovered a huge trove of ancient Roman coins in his cherry orchard. . . . Weighing around 15kg (33lb), he discovered the coins after spotting something shimmering in a molehill."
    (BBC News, November 19, 2015)
  • "Bank worker tried to film naked women as they lay in tanning booths on his mobile phone."
    (Headline in the Daily Mail [UK], September 6, 2012)
  • "For many people eating spoonfuls of Marmite every day would be their worst nightmare, but for St John Skelton it’s his dream job. . . . Despite being loathed by millions across the world, St John can’t get enough of the stuff and eats it almost every day."
    ("Meet the Man Who Earns a Living Eating Marmite." The Sun [UK], April 14, 2012)
  • "Princess Beatrice, who is starting a history degree at Goldsmiths College, London, later this year, was photographed running in the surf on the island of St Barts with her American boyfriend Dave Clark dressed in a blue bikini last month."
    ("Sarah, Duchess of York Defends Princess Beatrice's Weight Against 'Rude' Critics." The Daily Telegraph [UK], May 13, 2008)
  • "April Dawn Peters, 31, of 2194 Grandview Way, in Cosby, [was] arrested Sept. 19, at 10:30 p.m., and charged with aggravated assault after she allegedly hit a man on his head at least five times with a hammer that she was having sex with."
    (Newport [Tenn.] Plain Talk, September 22, 2012)
  • "And when upon your dainty breast I lay
    My wearied head, more soft than eiderdown."
    (William Nathan Stedman)
  • "They just said it's going to rain on the radio."
    ("Tiger" comic strip)
  • "You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian composers, artists, and writers are buried daily, except on Thursdays."
    (in a guide to a Russian Orthodox monastery)
  • "Historians have been kept guessing over claims [that] Dr James Barry, Inspector General of Military Hospitals, was in fact a woman for more than 140 years."
    (The Daily Telegraph [UK], March 5, 2008)
  • "One of three sisters, Hilda’s father was a butcher who ran four shops in Oldham."
    ("Tot of Sherry Keeps Hilda Going!" Oldham Evening Chronicle [UK], August 20, 2010)
  • "Her only full-time paid employee is a pleasant young woman with a nose ring named Rebecca, who sits at the front desk."
    (reprinted in The New Yorker)
  • She handed out brownies to children wrapped in Tupperware."
    (reprinted in The Revenge of Anguished English, by Richard Lederer)
  • "After being busted on drug charges in Los Angeles last month, a federal judge will decide on Friday whether to rescind his probation and send the rapper back to prison."
    ("Rapper T.I. Talks Man off Ledge." Slate, October 14, 2010)
  • "Comedian Russell Brand revealed he did have sex with model Sophie Coady during a High Court hearing on Monday."
    ("Russell Brand Confesses in Court . . .." The Daily Mail [UK], December 24, 2013)

Safire's Bloopie Awards

  • "Never has the competition for the Most Egregiously Misplaced Modifier Bloopie been hotter. Among the candidates:
    "Lands' End, the Direct Merchants, on their bathing attire: 'We can fit you in a swimsuit that fits and flatters--right over the phone!' The swimsuit flatters over the phone? . . . Better to swing the end of the sentence to the front, where the pronoun to be modified can be found: 'Right over the phone, we can fit you' etc.
    "And here's a juicy one from Minute Maid: 'Help today's U.S. Olympic Hopefuls become tomorrow's Olympic Champions by purchasing Minute Maid Quality Products.' Athletes do not become tomorrow's champs by purchasing anything; swing the end around to the beginning and attach it to a you: 'By purchasing . . . you can help' etc.
    "The winner in this category? The envelope, please: It's Honda Motor Cars, with its wildly swerving claim, 'While pleasing to your eye, the air passing over and around the body hardly notices it.' Air is not 'pleasing to your eye'; the car's body should come immediately after the modifying phrase. Thus: 'While pleasing to your eye, the body is hardly noticed by the air passing over and around it.' That formulation would not make a whole lot of sense, either, but at least the modifier would be attached to the right noun."
    (William Safire, "On Language: The Bloopie Awards." The New York Times, May 17, 1992)

Slippery Modifiers

  • "Certain modifiers are slippery; they slide into the wrong position in the sentence. The most dangerous are only, almost, already, even, just, nearly, merely, and always. No: They almost worked five years on that system. Yes: They worked almost five years on that system. In general, these slippery descriptors should appear just before the terms they modify." (E. H. Weiss, 100 Writing Remedies. Greenwood, 1990)

James Thurber on the Placement of Only

  • "Where to use only in a sentence is a moot question, one of the mootest questions in all rhetoric. The purist will say that the expression: 'He only died last week' is incorrect, and that it should be: 'He died only last week.' The purist's contention is that the first sentence, if carried out to a natural conclusion, would give us something like this: 'He only died last week, he didn't do anything else, that's all he did.' It isn't a natural conclusion, however, because nobody would say that and if anybody did it would be likely to lead to stomping of feet and clapping of hands, because it is one of those singy-songy expressions which set a certain type of person to acting rowdy and becoming unmanageable. It is better just to let the expression go, either one way or the other, because, after all, this particular sentence is of no importance except in cases where one is breaking the news to a mother. In such cases one should begin with: 'Mrs. Gormley, your son has had an accident,' or: 'Mrs. Gormley, your son is not so good,' and then lead up gently to: 'He died only last week.'
    "The best way is often to omit only and use some other expression. Thus, instead of saying: 'He only died last week,' one could say: 'It was no longer ago than last Thursday that George L. Wodolgoffing became an angel.' Moreover, this is more explicit and eliminates the possibility of a misunderstanding as to who died."
    (James Thurber, "Our Own Modern English Usage: Only and One." The New Yorker, February 23, 1929. Reprinted in The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities. Harper & Brothers, 1931)

Pronunciation: MIS-plast MOD-i-FI-er

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Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Misplaced Modifier?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-misplaced-modifier-1691394. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). What is a Misplaced Modifier? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-misplaced-modifier-1691394 Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Misplaced Modifier?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-misplaced-modifier-1691394 (accessed March 21, 2023).