However, you must be careful to avoid misplaced modifiers—modifiers that are positioned so that they appear to modify the wrong thing. Paying attention to basic problems like misplaced and dangling modifiers can improve your writing.
In general, place single-word modifiers near the word or words they modify, especially when a reader might think that they modify something different in the sentence. Consider the following sentence:
Do we understand the Spanish easily, or do the visitors speak it easily? The following revision eliminates the confusion:
It is particularly important to be careful about where you put limiting modifiers. These are words like almost, hardly, nearly, just, only and merely. Many writers regularly misplace these modifiers. You can accidentally change the entire meaning of a sentence if you place these modifiers next to the wrong word:
A squinting modifier is an ambiguously placed modifier that can modify either the word before it or the word after it. In other words, it is squinting in both directions at the same time:
The infinitive form of the verb consists of the preposition to followed by the base form of the verb: to be, to serve, to chop, etc. Inserting a word or words between to and the verb of an infinitive creates what is known as a split infinitive. Prescriptive grammarians once decreed that a split infinitive was an error, but now it is growing increasingly acceptable even in formal writing. Nevertheless, some careful writers still prefer to avoid splitting infinitives altogether.
In general, avoid placing long, disruptive modifiers between to and the verb of an infinitive.
However, use your judgement when it comes to single-word modifiers. Sometimes a sentence becomes awkward if a single-word modifier is placed anywhere but between the elements of the infinitive.
The dangling modifier, a persistent and frequent grammatical problem in writing, is often (though not always) found at the beginning of a sentence. A dangling modifier is usually a phrase or an elliptical clause—a dependent clause whose subject and verb are implied rather than expressed—that functions as an adjective but does not modify any specific word in the sentence, or (worse) modifies the wrong word. Consider the following example:
The introductory phrase in the above sentence looks as if it is meant to modify a person or persons, but no one is mentioned in the sentence. Such introductory adjective phrases, because of their position, automatically modify the first noun or pronoun that follows the phrase. In this case, the connection is illogical because it was not raised in Nova Scotia. You could revise the sentence in a number of ways:
A dangling modifier can also appear when an elliptical clause is placed improperly:
In this sentence, the clause although nearly finished illogically modifies we, the pronoun directly following the clause. You can rectify the problem by reinserting the subject and verb that are understood in the elliptical clause:
© Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa, 2013