Notes from the Proofreader: Misplaced, Dangling, and Squinting Modifiers

In this edition of “Notes from the Proofreader” we’ll discuss the fun to be had with misplaced, dangling, and squinting modifiers.

What are modifiers?

Modifiers are words or phrases that, well, modify other words. They can be adjectives or adverbs, as well as entire clauses or phrases. When placed correctly, modifiers can liven up a sentence, changing a bare-bones “John rode his bicycle” into a more colorful “John recklessly rode his rusty old bicycle down the mountainside.” When a modifier is misplaced or dangled or finds itself squinting, the results can be confusing—and sometimes entertaining.

When placed correctly, modifiers can liven up a sentence

Misplaced modifiers

A misplaced modifier is one that’s too far from what it’s meant to modify. It ends up attaching to the nearest word or phrase, giving the sentence a meaning the writer did not intend. Take the sentence “Anna saw her neighbors walking their dog through the window.” Can you just picture the neighbors and their poor dog trying to walk through a window? Careful writers can make their meaning clear by placing the modifier close to what it’s supposed to modify. For example, “Anna saw through the window that her neighbors were walking their dog” or “Peering through the window, Anna saw her neighbors walking their dog.”

Dangling modifiers

A dangling modifier is one that’s missing a subject to modify. It’s left to dangle on its own and ends up clinging to the nearest subject in the sentence. Introductory phrases are quite prone to these dangling modifiers. For instance, let’s take a look at the sentence “As one of our best customers, we want to extend this great offer to you.” Here, the modifier “one of our best customers” has nothing to modify. There’s no explicit subject in the introductory phrase it’s a part of. So it attaches itself to the nearest subject, “we,” and the sentence ends up saying that we’re one of our own best customers. A simple fix for this is to give the dangling modifier a proper subject. For example, “As you are one of our best customers, we want to extend this great offer to you” or “As one of our best customers, you’re eligible for this great offer.”

Introductory phrases are quite prone to these dangling modifiers.

Squinting modifiers

A squinting modifier is one that’s placed where it can modify more than one thing, leaving it up to the reader to decide which way to go (kind of like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the ’80s and ’90s). For example, the sentence “Companies that run test campaigns often are successful,” could mean (a) companies that often run test campaigns are successful or (b) companies that run test campaigns are often successful. Which would you choose?

We hope you have fun using modifiers in your writing, but please remember to place them carefully.

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