How misplaced modifiers muck up your message

Adverbs and adjectives are wonderful helpers, except when they’re not. As in real estate, there are three key factors: location, location, location.

As a self-professed word nerd and grammar wonk, I am always looking for fun ways to teach my kids about grammar.

Our latest grammar lesson occurred when my son and I were listening to the novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

Me: So the song says, “I’m a one-eyed, one-horned flyin’ purple people eater.” Does that mean the monster is purple or that he eats purple people?
Him: It means he’s purple and he eats purple people.

The lesson here was about modifiers and why their location in a sentence is important.

When used correctly, modifiers add interest and depth to your writing. When modifiers are used incorrectly, the reader may not understand the details of the sentence.

A misplaced modifier occurs when a word or phrase is placed too far from the word it describes. Because of this separation, it’s not clear what is being described in the sentence.

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Misplaced modifiers can usually be avoided by placing the modifying word or phrase appropriately close to the word it modifies.

Unclear: The patient was referred to a specialist with severe bipolar disorder.

Better: The patient with severe bipolar disorder was referred to a specialist.

Unclear: Dr. Smith treated the patients using antidepressants.

Better: Dr. Smith treated the patients with antidepressants.

Better: Dr. Smith treated the patients who were using antidepressants.

Unclear: The medication she prescribes frequently is not available.

Better: The medication she frequently prescribes is not available.

Better: The medication she prescribes is frequently not available.

Misplaced modifiers can produce unintentionally humorous sentences. Take a look at these examples from Grammar Girl:

  • “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.”
  • “Two sisters reunited after 18 years in checkout counter.”
  • “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” (OK, this one is intentionally humorous; it’s a Groucho Marx line from “Animal Crackers.”)
  • “We found the address he gave me without difficulty.”

There’s even a joke about a misplaced modifier walking into a bar.

Ragan readers, do you have any examples of misplaced modifiers to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at

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