To preface an article for a magazine, I once typed: Though published with permission, the author of this letter has requested to remain anonymous. Then I did a double-take and quickly revised it to: Though this letter is published with permission, the author has requested to remain anonymous.

That dangling modifier snuck up on me.

What is a Modifier?

Modifiers are adjectives, adverbs, or groups of words serving as adjectives or adverbs. We tend to link modifiers to the closest noun they could modify. But they can cause confusion when they are placed in the wrong part of the sentence. The following are some examples.

Confusing: The princess served chimera meat to her knights on copper plates.

What is “on copper plates” modifying: the knights or the chimera meat? While we may be able to deduce the meaning of this sentence from the context, it is still a bit confusing.

Clear: The princess served her knights chimera meat on copper plates.

Now we know for certain that it was chimera meat, and not those knights, on the copper plates.

There are three categories of modifier problems: Limiting modifiers, split infinitives, and dangling modifiers.

Limiting Modifiers

Limiting modifiers include the words almost, even, hardly, exactly, just, merely, nearly, only, and simply. For clarity, place these modifiers immediately before the word or word group you intend to limit.

Confusing: Dr. Alan Grant only found the velociraptor skull on his last dig.

There are two possible meanings here: Dr. Alan Grant found only a skull or he found the skull on his last dig.

Clear: Dr. Alan Grant found only a velociraptor skull on his last dig.

Clear: Dr. Alan Grant found a velociraptor skull only on his last dig.

Split Infinitives

A split infinitive is an adverb that has been placed between to and a verb. These don’t create confusing, so much as awkward, phrasing.

Awkward: The scientist expected the robot to not kill all the humans.

Revised: The scientist expected the robot not to kill all the humans.

Even better: The scientist did not expect the robot to kill all the humans.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier does not clearly modify anything in its sentence. Here’s my above example again: Though published with permission, the author of this letter has requested to remain anonymous.

In this case, Though published with permission does not make sense paired with the author.

How can you tell you have a dangling modifier? It doesn’t have its own subject.

There are a few ways you can revise a dangling modifier:

  1. Give it a subject (which is what I did): Though this letter is published with permission, the author has requested to remain anonymous.
  2. Change the subject in the main clause: Though published with permission, this letter’s author has requested to remain anonymous.
  3. Rewrite it as a complete clause with its own subject and verb: Though the author has requested to remain anonymous, this letter is published with permission.

Modifiers are trouble spots we all fall into without realizing. They cause confusion, but we can usually understand the sentence’s meaning from context and rephrase it. Learn how to spot and revise misplaced or dangling modifiers to give your sentences that extra bit of clarity.