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Misplaced modifiers: The donkey was disguised as a monk?

Modifying words or phrases describe other words and make meaning more specific. However, if the modifier is placed in the wrong part of the sentence, confusion, and sometimes hilarity, often results. For example: "Dorea had sent Francesco to safety with his mother, who had traveled across the mountains on a donkey disguised as a monk" (Strathern, 2009, p. 191). Presumably the author intended the reader to understand that it was the mother, not the donkey, who was disguised as a monk. However, "disguised as a monk" is a modifying clause, and because of its placement, the sentence suggests that it was, in fact, the donkey who was disguised as a monk.

To avoid misplaced modifiers, make sure your modifying words or phrases appear as soon as possible after the noun or phrase being modified. For example, the above example would be much clearer if it read, "Dorea had sent Francesco to safety with his mother, who had disguised herself as a monk when she travelled across the mountains on a donkey".

In the same family of errors are dangling modifiers, which are words or phrases that modify a noun or phrase but it's unclear which word(s) are being modified. For example, “the ladies of the church have cast off clothes of every kind and they can be seen in the church basement on Friday afternoons” (First Presbyterian Church of Hamilton, Massachusetts, as cited by Chilton, 2004, Snippets & more snippets, #5) . You can probably see the problem with this sentence: a rather unfortunately vague use of "they"!

If you'd like more information on misplaced and dangling modifiers, please visit Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers. You'll also learn more there about squinting modifers, which I think is one of the best names for a grammar problem. The Grammar Girl also has a posting on the topic:  Misplaced Modifiers.

If you have any questions, please contact the Writing Centre.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator 


Chilton, S. (2004). Snippets: Some examples of bad writing for your amusement and horror. Retrieved from

Strathern, P. (2009). The artist, the philosopher and the warrior: Leonardo, Machiavelli and Borgia: A fateful collusion. London, United Kingdom: Jonathan Cape.

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