The Most Common Misplaced Modifier

Girl only wearing white dress

“Girl running on grass with no shoes, only wearing a white dress.”

What is a misplaced modifier? Simply put – it’s a word in your sentence that modifies, or describes, the wrong word.

As I edit or proofread articles, the modifier I see misplaced most often is only.

Two examples here:

“The painting can only be appreciated by looking at its intricate details.”

“I only bought two dresses.”

See anything wrong there? They sound fine when you say them out loud, right?

But if you read them closely, you’ll see that what the writer wants to say in the first example is, “Only when you look at the intricate details can you appreciate the painting.”

What he’s actually written is that you can only appreciate the painting! You can’t copy it, you can’t criticize it. You can only appreciate it!

Same thing in the second example. You only bought the dresses? You didn’t look at them? You didn’t try them on?

Of course, the friend you’re telling this will understand what you mean. It might seem awkward – or even pretentious – to say “I bought only two dresses.”

But if you’re writing, you don’t want to leave any room for misinterpretation.

My suggestion? After you’ve finished writing your piece, do a word search for only to make sure you haven’t misplaced it. While you’re at it, look for other often-misplaced modifiers, like always and almost.

And with that – and other tweaks – you’re almost on your way to an almost perfect article.

P.S. Exercise: The caption below the photograph is the description attached to the photo. How would you fix it?

Cheryl Bryan

About Cheryl Bryan

Cheryl has years of experience in the business world, in a variety of fields: staffing, insurance, construction, and advertising, to name a few. She has freelanced since 1990. Friends and colleagues describe her as genuine, thoughtful, gracious, organized, easy-going, compassionate, a "thinker as well as a doer," and one who not only gets the job done but does it well. Born in rural Nebraska, she is back now after living in California, Texas, South Africa, Illinois, Tennessee, and Mississippi and traveling in Europe, South Africa, and Thailand.
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8 Responses to The Most Common Misplaced Modifier

  1. Cheryl Cheryl says:

    Lori, at the least, that’s hyperbole – “My only wish….” And you wouldn’t be the first one to have fun with this tendency to misplace our modifiers. I think the most quoted example is from Groucho Marx: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

  2. Lori says:

    Big peeve of mine! “I only wish others would see the mistake.” So that’s your only wish? You don’t want them to correct it?

    LOL! I could have some fun with this. 🙂

  3. Cheryl Cheryl says:

    I suspect almost all of us are guilty of misplacing only when we speak, Anne. That’s why we don’t notice it in our writing. On the other hand, you knew where to put the almost. Otherwise, you might have said “I’m sure I’m almost guilty!”

  4. Cheryl Cheryl says:

    An actual Laugh Out Loud, Mitzi! When I heard myself quoting that caption to Bill last night, I wondered if I remembered it right. Why was the word only even there? I just thought it was funny that while looking for a photo illustration I came across a classic example of a misplaced only — not to mention barefoot grass!

  5. Cheryl Cheryl says:

    Isn’t that the truth, Cathy? Why is it so much easier to form bad habits than to break them? But just wait. I suspect that now you’ll start noticing that “only” thing all over the place! Kind of like the confusion between its and it’s.

  6. Mitzi says:

    I would tell her to go put on some panties with that white dress!

  7. Anne Wayman says:

    I’m almost sure I’m guilty! Truth is I don’t quite get the difference… blushing to admit this.

  8. Cathy Miller says:

    Good tips, Cheryl. The older I get, the more bad habits appear. 😉

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