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Misplaced Modifiers, Squinting Modifiers, and Dangling Modifiers

Teacher/Instructor Katie Aquino
Katie Aquino

Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University

Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.

Modifiers are groups of words or single words that describe other words. They are used in order to give more depth and information. Some modifiers that are commonly used incorrectly are called dangling modifiers, squinting modifiers, and misplaced modifiers. Dangling modifiers describe something that is not in the sentence, and squinting modifiers describe two potential items in a sentence, however making unclear which one. A misplaced modifier describes something in your sentence that is not what you intended it to.

Alright, so now we're talking modifiers and I'm going to give you a warning; this is actually one of the most entertaining grammar lessons that you can get out there. But, let's get down to the basics. Bottom line, modifiers are words or groups of words that describe other words. So we've got the sentence, "I almost failed every task." We've got a lot of modifiers here. We've got the word almost describing failed and every describing task. So we use modifiers all the time in order to give more information. However, sometimes that can get us into a little bit of trouble. And we're going to talk about three trouble areas in modifiers.
The first are dangling modifiers and those are modifiers that describe something that's not actually in your sentence. For instance, "Making sounds, I wondered what was broken." alright. Obviously something is making sounds and I'm wondering if it's broken but the way I wrote it here makes it sound like I'm the one making sounds, alright? So I need to, rather than have nothing in there that is describing, I need to say what is making the sounds in order to fix that. So when you leave something there, you describe something that's not actually in the sentence, that's a dangling modifier, alright?
Another dangerous type of modifier and probably the most common error I see are called squinting modifiers. They're actually called squinting modifiers because they can kind of squint and look either way. So it's when something in your sentence describes potentially two things in your sentence so that the intention is unclear. The reader is not sure what you're meaning to describe. For instance, "Students who miss class frequently fail class." So are we talking, is this frequently meaning to describe how often they miss class or how often they fail class? So we've got to stick something in that sentence to make it a little bit more clear.
The final type of modifier error that we're going to discuss is the misplaced modifier. And that's when it describes something in your sentence other than what you intended it to. For instance, 'The refrigerator is running downstairs.' alright? Clearly, there is not a refrigerator running on the treadmill downstairs. What we mean is that the refrigerator itself is running. So what we would do is actually change downstairs to the front of the sentence to let us know downstairs, the refrigerator is running. That's a misplaced modifier where you've got to move things around.
So some tricks to help you avoid these different kinds of trouble modifiers; keep your modifiers as close to what they are modifying as possible. So that's an easy way to your meaning across most clearly. And, if you lead with a modifying phrase, follow directly with what's being modified and that will help you avoid some confusion.
So let's take a look at some examples of these modifiers and see if we can figure them out and fix them. So the first one we have is, "Driving down the street, the trees look beautiful." So of course, the trees aren't driving but this is what the sentence makes it sound like, so in order to fix this, we've got to add in who is driving. This is a dangling modifier, there's something missing here. So, I could add in, "As I was driving down the street, the trees looked beautiful." So I've added in the subject "I" so that I know that's what was driving down the street. So to fix a dangling modifier, you've got to add in what's missing.
And the next example, it says, "The gold woman's bracelet was missing." alright? At first glance that sounds okay except that if you look at that really closely, what you're saying is that the woman was the color of gold not the bracelet. So in order to change this, we've got a misplaced modifier. These are probably the easiest to fix. You just have to switch word order. So remember that rule, we want what's being modified as close as possible to the modifier. So let's move gold down here and then we'll have the sentence, "The woman's gold bracelet was missing." That's a little bit more clear. So again with the misplaced modifier, you just have to flip the order of the words.
The last one here, maybe the more difficult to pick out, we have, "The teacher told me on Tuesday she would return our tests." Now that's one of those squinting ones where it's little bit confusing because I don't know what you mean. I don't know if the teacher told you on Tuesday that she was going to return the test or that the teacher told you that on Tuesday she was going to return the test. So there's two different ways to fix that depending on what you intend to say. So if I was trying to say that on Tuesday, the teacher told me, I would move Tuesday up to the beginning. So I'd say, "Tuesday, the teacher told me she would return our test." If I meant it the other way around, I would say, "The teacher told me she would return our tests on Tuesday." and that makes that meaning a little bit more clear. So when you're working with a dangling, sorry, so when you're working with a squinting modifier, what you want to do is really think about what you're trying to say and then move your modifying phrase around accordingly.
So, hopefully now you can identify the three different types of modifying errors and just work to get that modifier as close as possible to what it's modifying so that you can be as clear as possible in what you're saying.