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Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches modifiers, common usage problems, and how to fix them.

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Welcome English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about modifiers, what they are and three of the ways writers commonly misuse them-- misplaced, dangling, and unclear modifiers.

First let's talk about modifiers in general. Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that provide extra information about elements of the sentence. They're usually adverbs or adjective phrases that act as adverbs or adjectives. Modifiers should physically appear in the sentence as close as possible to what they are modifying, or else they may seem to modify the wrong piece of information. Or it may be unclear what they are modifying and why.

For the rest of this lesson, we'll cover the most common mistakes writers make when using modifiers. The first problem writers tend to have with modifiers is creating misplaced modifiers. This happens when a modifier is situated so that it is modifying something other than what the writer intended. Usually fixing misplaced modifiers is just a question of moving the modifier closer to what it's supposed to be targeting so readers can more clearly see what you are trying to say.

If I wrote, for example, that, "He almost drove the car for six hours that day," you probably understand what I mean. But technically what I said was that the man almost drove the car and that if he had, it would have been for six hours. Obviously the modifier, "almost," is supposed to be modifying the adverbial phrase "for six hours," but since it's so far away, it's not. Let's move it. "He drove the car for almost six hours that day." That's better, right?

Now how about this sentence? "They said the traffic will be bad on the news." This kind of thing is very common in spoken English, and since you could probably understand what the speaker meant, you probably wouldn't need to correct it when speaking. But for writing we need to have a higher standard, in part because it's easier to confuse readers than listeners. Here again the modifying phrase "on the news" is too far away from the verb it's modifying. So let's move it closer. "They said on the news that the traffic will be bad." Now it doesn't sound like there'll be traffic running through the newsroom anymore.

Or how about this one? "She saw her grandmother on our way to school." Chances are it's not the grandmother going to school, so if we move the modifier closer to the verb and further from the other clause, we can prevent any confusion. "On our way to school, she saw her grandmother."

Dangling modifiers. The next form of trouble writers can get into are modifying phrases that did not actually modify what follows them. They're generally found at the beginning of sentences, and because of this writers will sometimes make the mistake of not reflecting the modifier in the main clause.

For example, take a look at the sentence. "Having spent the night tossing and turning, the mid-term is going to be tough." In this sentence, we don't actually have the word or words that the modifier, "having spent the night tossing and turning," is modifying. Readers can probably understand what's meant here, but still the sentence is ungrammatical, and it's also going to slow readers down in the text since they'll have to work a little harder to mentally insert the modified word. So let's do it for them and make our language a little clearer. "Having spent the night tossing and turning, I knew the mid-term was going to be tough."

This is what most angry modifiers look like, but we can also make mistakes even when the modifier doesn't start the sentence, as in, "Dinner was a failure, not having read the recipe carefully enough." Here, just like the last time, we don't actually have the word or words that's being modified. It's certainly not the dinner, as that can't be expected to read its own recipe. So let's add the modified term. "Dinner was a failure with her not having read the recipe carefully enough."

Unclear modifiers, sometimes called "squinting modifiers," are modifiers that can be viewed multiple ways. Usually this happens when a modifier is placed between two clauses and the reader can't tell for sure which it's supposed to be modifying. One of the most famous examples of this, or at least the one I was told when I first learned about unclear modifiers, is this one. "Writing about your dreams clearly helps you remember them."

Now the trouble here is that you can clearly here the emphasis I add to the sentence even without trying. I could have just as easily read it like this, though, "Writing about your dreams clearly helps you remember them." Either way, the sentence is only a problem and written English since readers don't have the help of the writer's voice queues.

But we can fix that by changing the modifier to something like this for example, "It's obvious that writing about your dreams helps you remember them." Or if we wanted to make the second reading's meaning show through, how about this one? "Writing about your dreams with enough clarity and detail helps you remember them." Either way works. The key with unclear modifiers, and all modifiers for that matter, is to make sure the sentence is clearly and effectively saying what you mean it to say.

What did we learn today? We learned about modifiers and how to both recognize and avoid the three problems writers tend to have with them--misplaced, dangling, and unclear modifiers. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

Words, phrases, or clauses that provide extra information about elements of a sentence.