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?