SB4: 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 modifiers, dangling modifiers, and split infinitives. 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 a word 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 

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

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.

Dangling modifiers

Split Infinitives

Splitting 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

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.


Adapted from “Sentence Building” in Writer’s Handbook, 2012, used according to Creative Commons  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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