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15.4 Avoiding Misplaced Modifiers, Dangling Modifiers, and Split Infinitives

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and split infinitives.
  2. Correct misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and split infinitives.
  3. Write sentences that do not include misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and split infinitives.

Consider this sentence: “For her birthday, Megan received an attractive woman’s briefcase.” The modifier “attractive” is in an awkward position. The person who wrote this sentence most likely intended to suggest that the briefcase was attractive. However, people reading it or listening to it might easily assume that the briefcase was intended for (or already belonged to) an attractive woman.

Three categories of modifier problems include misplaced modifiersA modifier that has an awkward, confusing position within a sentence., dangling modifiersA modifier that is placed within a sentence in a way that makes it seem as though it modifies a noun other than the one intended., and split infinitivesThe placement of a word between “to” and a verb (e.g., “to actually grow”).. These three categories, explained in the following subsections, are all similar because they all involve misplacing words or phrases. Understanding the differences between these categories should help you be on the lookout for such mistakes in your writing and that of your peers.

Misplaced Modifiers

The easiest way to clarify which word is being modified in a sentence is to place the modifier close to the word it modifies. Whenever possible, it is best to place a modifier immediately before or after the modified word.

Read the following example of a misplaced modifier, note the point of confusion, and review the correction.

Example 1

The malfunctioning student’s phone beeped during class.

Misplaced modifier: “malfunctioning”

Modifying link: “phone” (not “student”)

Point of confusion: The writer wants to say that the student had a malfunctioning phone that beeped during class, not that the student was malfunctioning.

Rewritten link: The student’s malfunctioning phone beeped during class.

Dangling Modifiers

Often a dangling modifier modifies the subject of a sentence, but the placement of the modifier makes it seem as though it modifies another noun in the sentence. Other times, a dangling modifier actually modifies someone or something other than the subject of the sentence, but the wording makes it appear as though the dangling modifier modifies the subject. The resulting image conveyed can often be rather confusing, humorous, or just embarrassing.

Read the following examples of dangling modifiers, note the point of confusion in each case, and review the possible corrections. Note that there is often more than one correct way to rewrite each sentence.

Example 1

The child was climbing the fence that always seemed adventuresome.

Misplaced modifier: “that always seemed adventuresome”

Modifying link: “child” (not “fence”)

Point of confusion: The wording makes it sound as if the fence is adventuresome, not the child.

Rewritten link:

The child, who always seemed adventuresome, was climbing the fence.

OR

The adventuresome child was climbing the fence.

Example 2

Reading in the porch swing, giant mosquitoes attacked me.

Misplaced modifier: “Reading in the porch swing”

Modifying link: Implicit “I” (not “mosquitoes”)

Point of confusion: The wording makes the sentence sound as if the mosquitoes are reading on the porch swing, not the speaker.

Rewritten link:

While I was reading on the porch swing, giant mosquitoes attacked me.

OR

Giant mosquitoes attacked me while I was reading on the porch swing.

Example 3

After being found in the washing machine, the dog eagerly played with his favorite chew toy.

Misplaced modifier: “After being found in the washing machine”

Modifying link: “toy” (not “dog”)

Point of confusion: This sentence is supposed to say that the toy, not the dog, was found in the washing machine.

Rewritten link:

After the dog’s favorite chew toy was found in the washing machine, he eagerly played with it.

OR

The dog eagerly played with his favorite chew toy after it was found in the washing machine.

Split Infinitives

Spliting infinitives refers to placing a word between “to” and a verb, as in “Miss Clark set out to clearly define the problem.” Technically, you should not place the word “clearly” between “to” and “define.” This grammar rule came about in the eighteenth century when people held Latin up as the language standard. Since Latin did not have two-word infinitives, such as “to define,” grammarians wanted to preserve the unity of the two-word infinitives in an effort to make English more Latin-like. The use of split infinitives, however, has become increasingly common over the decades (e.g., “to boldly go where no man has gone before”—Star Trek, 1966). In fact, split infinitives are gaining acceptance in professional and academic writing as well. For your purposes, knowing what split infinitives are will help you know your options as a writer.

Example 1

I’m going to quickly run to the store so I’ll be back when you get home.

Infinitive link: “to run”

Splitter link: “quickly”

Rewritten link: I’m going to run to the store quickly so I’ll be back when you get home.

Example 2

Helen thought Mr. Beed said to loudly sing, but he actually said to proudly sing.

Infinitive link: “to sing” (twice)

Splitter link: “loudly”; “proudly”

Rewritten link: Helen thought Mr. Beed said to sing loudly, but he actually said to sing proudly.

Key Takeaways

  • Misplaced modifiers can cloud the meaning of a sentence due to poor placement of key phrases within the sentence.
  • Dangling modifiers attribute a description to the wrong noun because of being placed in the wrong place in a sentence.
  • Split infinitives are acceptable in many writing situations, but you should understand them so you can avoid them when you need to.

Exercises

  1. Each of the following sentences has a misplaced modifier, dangling modifier, or split infinitive. Identify each occurrence and then rewrite the sentences to eliminate the modifier problems and the split infinitives.

    1. While eating lunch, a mouse ran by my foot.
    2. A kid ran by, leading a bulldog wearing a ball uniform.
    3. Alex decided to calmly ask for a raise.
    4. Hopping around the backyard, I saw a tiny bunny.
    5. While typing my paper, the computer froze.
  2. Write a sentence that includes the following ideas. Make sure not to include any misplaced or dangling modifiers.

    • you finished the main course
    • you ate pie and ice cream for dessert
    • you ate the dessert after the main course
  3. Write a sentence that includes the following ideas. Make sure not to include any split infinitives.

    • to complete
    • definitely
    • my homework
    • by tonight