Misplacing your modifier can result in unexpected and startling mistakes, such as the humorous line from Groucho Marx: “I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” These can be hard to spot because you know what you were trying to say, even if nobody else does!
- She handed him the ice cream, sweating from the marathon.
- He searched all over for his ancient daughter’s toy.
A modifier calls attention to something or someone. In the corrected sentence “Sweating from the marathon, she handed him the ice cream,” the correct placement of the phrase “sweating from the marathon” lets you know that it describes the woman (rather than the ice cream). A misplaced modifier directs attention to the wrong place in a sentence, as in “He drove his dog to day care, prepared for the faculty meeting.” No dog is prepared for what goes on at faculty meetings. It should be: “Prepared for the faculty meeting, he drove his dog to day care.”
Decades ago, many people learned to diagram sentences, a technique that visually shows the grammatical structure of a sentence. It was a clear way to learn that a modifier has to be right next to the thing it modifies. If she drove her dog to doggie day care wearing nothing but heels, the diagram would show that the modifier is next to the dog, not next to her.