Technical Writing Tip: Watch Out for Those Modifiers!

Two common mistakes I find in publications are dangling and misplaced modifiers. What does that mean? In this blog, I’ll provide a quick intro to modifiers and then provide some easy tips for checking that you haven’t dangled or misplaced them! 

What is a modifier? 

A modifier is a part of a sentence that is modifying another part of the sentence. It can be as simple as an added adjective or adverb, or it can be a more complex phrase. The key thing about modifiers is that they need to be positioned in a sentence so that they are acting upon the part you want to modify. Easy enough when talking about blue marbles or soft, fluffy pillows, but it can be harder to determine the best placement with more complex modifiers. 

How to know if it’s dangling 

A dangling modifier occurs when the element being modified is only implied, instead of explicitly stated. Without the correct element being included in the sentence, the modifier will instead modify whatever follows it. 

Example: While still in diapers, my mother remarried. 

It wasn’t the mother that was still in diapers, so in this case, the sentence should be rewritten to include the subject being modified (i.e., me). 

Corrected: While I was still in diapers, my mother remarried. 

How to tell if it’s misplaced 

A misplaced modifier occurs when it is placed in the incorrect location in relation to the element it is modifying – usually too far away. The subject may be present in the sentence, but the sentence reads with an unintended meaning because the modifier is in the wrong spot.  

Example: The company is looking for a technical writer to join the team who works with FrameMaker. 

It’s best to keep modifiers as close to the element they are modifying as possible. In this case, “who works with FrameMaker” should be modifying the technical writer, not the team. The sentence can be corrected by moving the modifier to be closer to its subject. 

Corrected: The company is looking for a technical writer who works with FrameMaker to join the team. 

So why is this important? In a lot of cases, your reader may still be able to figure out the intended meaning even if your modifier is dangling or misplaced -- but why make them work that hard? The goal should always be writing that is as clear as possible, so your readers easily know what you are trying to say, and that includes keeping those modifiers in their correct places. 

About the Author

Breanne MacDonald

Technical Editor<br><br>Fueled by her meticulous nature, an eye for detail, and a love of books, Breanne has been an editor for over 10 years. She has been a technical editor with ASCENT since 2019, and outside the office she is an avid volunteer with the Editors’ Association of Canada. Breanne holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

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