We’re starting a “Grammar lesson” series, in which we’ll cover tricky writing issues you might encounter in common workplace correspondences. For today’s lesson, I’m going to cover dangling and misplaced modifiers. Here are the main terms you should know:
- Modifier: An optional word, phrase or clause that restricts or clarifies a noun or verb in a main sentence. It’s “optional” because its removal wouldn’t render the sentence grammatically incorrect. Examples: “We are eagerly awaiting your response!” “Of the samples we received, this one was the best value.”
- Dangling modifier: A problematic modifier that is intended to modify a word that isn’t in the sentence. Example: “Returning to their desks, the mood was anxious.” That modifier is dangling because it’s intended to describe a group that isn’t actually mentioned in the sentence. It’s just dangling there, not attached to anything. You could rewrite it as “Returning to their desks, the employees were anxious.”
- Misplaced modifier: A problematic modifier that is intended to modify one word, but is actually modifying another because of its placement in the sentence. Example: “We spoke to the customers using calming word choice, tone of voice and body language.” The placement of that modifier implies that it was the customers who used the calming word choice, tone of voice and body language, but that’s not what was intended. You could rewrite it as “Using calming word choice, tone of voice and body language, we spoke to the customers.” That way, the modifier is closest to the pronoun it’s supposed to modify: “we.”
Note: Although I included both terms in the grammar lesson, I don’t think it’s actually critical to know whether the modifier in question is dangling or misplaced, as long you recognize it as problematic and know how to fix it.
Why dangling and misplaced modifiers are problems:
Aside from making your writing sloppy and unprofessional, dangling and misplaced modifiers can make your writing confusing and misleading. For example, if you reach out to a potential client and include the sentence “Please look over the proposal that is enclosed with your partner, and get back to us,” that person may dismiss you. As written, it appears as though the person’s partner should have the proposal.
Even if the potential client figures out what you intended (and doesn’t go on a wild goose chase looking for the proposal), he or she will question your communication skills and attention to detail, and possibly move on to your competitors—all because of a misplaced modifier. You can fix that example by moving the modifier: “Please look over with your partner the proposal that is enclosed, and get back to us.”
Want more practice with this grammar lesson?
Check out these quizzes to help you identify and correct dangling and misplaced modifiers:
What topics would you like covered in future grammar lessons?
[Image Source: Berries blog]