Modifiers add more information to elements within a sentence.
They are influential political leaders. (premodifier)
The people hid in bunkers during raids. (postmodifier)
We can make three mistakes with modifiers and they are known as:
- Misplaced modifiers
- Dangling modifiers
- Squinting modifiers
To be honest, I often don’t notice modifier problems unless they are confusing or unintentionally funny, such as this one:
After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges. (rotting brother?)
Quoted in Tom Sant’s Persuasive Business Proposals.
Misplaced modifiers are words or phrases that are in the wrong place.
The 1988 Lockerbie plane bomber, who has prostate cancer, wants to be freed from a Scottish jail where he is serving a life sentence on compassionate grounds. (www.smh.com.au, Aug 2009)
This sentence would be clearer as:
The 1988 Lockerbie plane bomber, who has prostate cancer, wants to be freed on compassionate grounds from a Scottish jail where he is serving a life sentence.
A phrase is ‘dangling’ or ‘detached’ when it becomes associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all.
Running to catch the bus, Betty’s umbrella blew inside out. (running umbrella?)
Walking down the street, the skyscrapers loomed over her. (walking skyscrapers?)
We use many dangling modifiers without causing any ambiguity (regarding, considering, provided that, assuming) and some great literature has dangling modifiers that delight rather than confuse.
’Tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me.
Squinting adverbial modifiers
Squinting adverbial modifiers create ambiguity and such sentences can be interpreted in different ways.
Children who play in the sun often have a high risk of skin cancer.
This sentence could mean that all children who play in the sun have a high risk of skin cancer, or that children who play in the sun a lot are at high risk of skin cancer.
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