ACT English: Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are common errors in English often made by writers who have no idea what they want to say. Even worse, these people think they can cover up their ambiguity with a sentence structure that sounds nice; in reality, though, the structure only sounds nice when it’s used correctly. As a result, those who misplace modifiers end up sounding a little silly, which I think is hilarious.
Don’t be discouraged if you suspect you might be one of them. We’ve all been there. But, have no fear; I’m going to clear it up for you. Modifiers are words or phrases that, well, modify a noun or verb. They qualify the noun or verb, describe it, or change its meaning. A misplaced modifier happens to modify something that you did not intend to modify, often–or hopefully–with humorous consequences.
The most common type of misplaced modifier question on the ACT English test involves a modifying phrase. Here is a classic example from Grockit of a sentence on the ACT English test with a misplaced modifier:

1. Watching television in the evenings, the chair is where Dad relaxes before it is time to eat dinner.

I hope that everybody sees something seriously wrong with this sentence. As it stands, the sentence implies that the chair watches television in the evenings, which I find a little disturbing (nothing freaks me out more than the idea of animate furniture). When we begin the sentence with a modifying phrase like “Watching television in the evenings,” the first word after the comma must be the noun that the phrase describes. We must ask ourselves, “Who or what is watching television in the evenings?” The answer, of course, is “Dad,” not “the chair.”
To improve this wretched sentence, you would place the true subject of the sentence, Dad, right after the first comma:

1. Watching television in the evenings, Dad relaxes in the chair before it is time to eat dinner.

To improve it even further, you could rearrange the clauses to figure out what the author is really trying to say:

1. In the evenings, Dad relaxes in the chair and watches a bit of television before he eats dinner.

With this correction, we got rid of the original modifying phrase altogether. Sometimes, you just have to let go. Here are a few more examples of misplaced modifier sentences you might find on the ACT:

2. Known for his public-speaking ability, Barack Obama’s powerful speech received a standing ovation.

Use the same strategy for this sentence that you used for the last one. Ask yourself: Who is known for his public-speaking ability? Why, Barack Obama, of course! And what is the first thing you see after the comma? It’s Barack Obama, right? So, does that mean “Barack Obama” is the modified noun? Not quite. Notice that, in this sentence, Barack Obama is not the subject, but “speech” is. “Barack Obama’s” is a possessive noun (functioning as an adjective) that describes “speech.” Here’s how to fix it:

2. Known for his public-speaking ability, Barack Obama received a standing ovation for his powerful speech.

Now, Barack functions as the proper noun he is; “Barack Obama” is now the subject of the sentence.
Here’s another example, just to make sure all this makes sense:

3. After winning the Tour de France once again, the success of Lance Armstrong was easily attributed to his unmatched perseverance.


3. After winning the Tour de France once again, Lance Armstrong easily attributed his success to his unmatched perseverance.

In the case that you cannot locate the noun modified by the modifying phrase, we call that a “dangling modifier.” For example:

4. Admiring the beautiful cloud formation, the sky seemed different that day.

Of course, we know that the sky cannot admire its own clouds. That’d be a little narcissistic (not to mention impossible). In fact, there is no noun in the sentence that could logically work as the correct subject. The writer probably meant something like this:

4. Admiring the beautiful cloud formation, I noticed that the sky seemed different that day.

To avoid dangling and misplaced modifiers, try to say what you mean. To spot them on the ACT, make sure the noun following a modifying phrase actually fits its description. Now, go impress your friends with what you’ve learned.