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Of Mice and Modifiers — How to Avoid Confusing Modifiers in Writing

By Vicki McClure Davidson


Modifiers add pizzazz to your writing. They help the reader better understand something or someone because of the descriptions. However, you need to be sure to use modifiers correctly.

What exactly IS a modifier?

Just as its name suggests, a modifier MODIFIES, or better explains, another word, phrase, or clause. It adds details to a sentence. For example, look at the sentence The dog ran. By adding a few modifiers to that sentence (The black, mangy dog with the torn ear ran swiftly), a clearer picture is painted for the reader so that he or she can "see" it more clearly or accurately in his or her mind.

Whether they are words, phrases, or clauses, modifiers should always point directly to the words they modify. The farther away they are from the words they are modifying, the more confusion is created. When phrases or clauses are oddly placed, absurd or misunderstood misreadings often result.

Examples of Misplaced Modifiers:

Mice are quick to scurry out when the family is away from the hiding places in the walls of the house.

This isn't written correctly. The mice, not the family, are hiding in the walls. It paints an amusing picture, doesn’t it? The phrase "when the family is gone" needs to be moved so that the modifiers are correctly placed in the sentence.


When the family is away, mice are quick to scurry from the hiding places in the walls of the house. OR

Mice are quick to scurry from the hiding places in the walls of the house when the family is away.


Mimi was the sheepdog wearing a lavender collar weighing 100 pounds at the dog show.

This sentence is not written correctly, and because of that, the message is confusing. It is the DOG, not the collar, that weighs 100 pounds.


Weighing 100 pounds, Mimi was the sheepdog wearing the lavender collar at the dog show. OR

Mimi, weighing 100 pounds, was the sheepdog wearing the lavender collar at the dog show.


Jamal loves to eat chocolate mint ice cream when it is hot.

You probably noticed that this sentence is not correctly written. Putting the modifier "hot" at the end of the sentence alters the meaning of the sentence. As written, this sentence suggests that Jamal eats hot ice cream, not that the weather is warm. Is that what the writer was trying to say? Actually, we don’t know. Jamal COULD like eating hot ice cream (which would be a melted, sticky mess). If he does, the sentence should be written a little differently so that no confusion occurs. Read these corrected versions. See if you can detect the subtle ways the message changes when the modifier is moved to a different place in the sentence.

Corrected Versions:

When it is hot outside, Jamal loves to eat chocolate mint ice cream.

Jamal loves to eat hot chocolate mint ice cream. OR

Jamal loves to eat chocolate mint ice cream that is hot.

Which ones are obviously in error, and which one is written so that it makes sense?

There are a number of ways you can write the same sentence to express your thoughts — putting the modifiers at the beginning of a sentence or somewhere in the middle, mixing it up, makes writing far more interesting to read. But by doing this, it's easy to misplace the modifiers.

Carefully read what you’ve written to decide if you put your modifiers in the correct places. Sometimes, we write so fast that what we're trying to communicate comes out a bit bizarre because the modifiers are in the wrong locations.

To prevent confusion and misplaced modifiers, remember this: MODIFIERS NEED TO BE NEXT TO OR NEAR THE WORDS THEY ARE MODIFYING.


Similes and Metaphors

Vivid writing with colorful details is always encouraged. Sometimes, expressing your feelings or thoughts is difficult. Using similes and metaphors helps by making reading your work more enjoyable and interesting. Similes and metaphors add poetic descriptions by comparing one object to another object.


Similes (use "like" or "as" to compare two or more things)

My love is like a red, red rose.
Brandon was as hungry as a horse.
Mr. Jones was as angry as a wet cat.
The stars in the night sky looked like polished diamonds filling a calm sea.


Metaphors (do not use the words "like" or "as"—the thing "is")

Maria’s hair was silk. (If this was written "Maria's hair was soft like silk," it would be a simile.)
The car salesman is a shark.
My math teacher is a drill sergeant, loading on the homework.
Robert is such a mule.
The queen’s silent glare was ice.
Ashley is a jewel because of her volunteer work.
Miguel's dog is a tiger when challenged by other dogs in the neighborhood.

However, as shown with the modifiers above, vivid writing can go weirdly astray. Below are some examples of metaphors and similes you should NOT use.

Once you begin to read them, you'll understand why you shouldn't use them (of course, if a sentence makes you laugh because it paints a misguided picture, that is reason enough). These were taken from actual American public high school essays. Learn from other students' mistakes!





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