Grammar Yammer: Faulty Modifiers

2019-04-02

Before we talk about what a 'faulty modifier' actually is, first take a moment to look at the following example and ask yourself if the example is correct:


X: Though only in the fifth grade, my math teacher often asked me to solve questions that even my older brother could not answer.


To the untrained eye, this sentence might seem perfectly acceptable. However, this sentence contains one of the most common errors in written English: the faulty (dangling) modifier! In this post, you will learn what a modifier and faulty modifier are, learn how to arrange a sentence to fix the fault, and have a go at solving practice problems.



What is a Modifier?


In simple terms, a modifier is an optional part of a sentence that modifies (changes the meaning of) an element in a sentence. In the example given above, the modifier is the part at the beginning of the sentence:


X: Though only in the fifth grade, my math teacher often asked me to solve questions that even my older brother could not answer.


The underlined section is the modifier because it is modifying the narrator in the sentence. As you can see, if you remove this modifier, the main idea in the sentence remains the same and the grammar would still be intact. This shows that this modifier as well as all other modifiers are optional.


✔: My math teacher often asked me to solve questions that even my older brother could not answer.



What is a Faulty Modifier?


A faulty modifier is a modifier that is modifying (changing) the wrong element. In general, the modifier must be next to (or as close as possible to) the element it wants to modify. Let's look at a different example:


✔: Looking out over the Maidenbower fields and meadows, James and Matthew opened another beer and recollected their fondest memories they shared playing there as children.


Here, the modifier is 'Looking out over the Maidenbower' and the element being modified is 'James and Matthew'. We can know this by asking ourselves "who is looking out over the fields and meadows?" By asking such a question, it becomes very clear that it must be James and Matthew who are doing so. In this example, the modifier is already next to the element that is wants to modify. Therefore, there are no errors here. Now, take a look at the sentence below:


X: James and Matthew opened another beer looking out over the Maidenbower fields and meadows, and they recollected their fondest memories spent playing there as children.


In this case, the modifier is still the same ('Looking out over the Maidenbower'). However, it is no longer next to the element is should be modifying (James and Matthew). Instead, the modifier is next to and is modifying 'beer'. This is definitely incorrect since 'beer' cannot '[look] out over fields and meadows'. This, therefore, is a fault modifier, and needs to be corrected.



How to Correct Faulty Modifiers?


Seeing the previous example, you have probably figured it out already! One way to correct a faulty modifier is to place the modifier and the element that it is supposed to modify next to each other (making other small changes as necessary). Let's go back to our original example:


X: Though only in the fifth grade, my math teacher often asked me to solve questions that even my older brother could not answer.


It should now be apparent why this is incorrect: the modifier is modifying the wrong thing! As it stands, it was the math teacher who was in the fifth grade, which does not make sense at all. One way to fix this is shown below:


✔: Though only in the fifth grade, I was often asked by my math teacher to solve questions that even my older brother could not answer.


The modifier is now next to the correct element and the faulty modifier has been corrected!



Faulty Modifier Practice Questions


To make sure you have fully understood this concept, have a go at identifying which of the following are correct or incorrect (faulty).


  1. Although only ten years old, walking home from school was not a problem for Maurice.
  2. While driving home from work, the passenger could not help but to ask the driver a lot of questions.
  3. On the way to the supermarket, Eric realized that he had forgotten to bring his wallet.
  4. Within five minutes of meeting Andrew, Alex had fallen helplessly in love with him.
  5. Having failed the test, Jeremiah asked his teacher to help him prepare for the next one.
  6. While running around the park, many dogs barked at me.
  7. Jumping in the swimming pool, George's back flip impressed all of his friends.



Answers


  1. Incorrect - Maurice was only ten years old, so the name Maurice must be next to the modifier:
    Although only ten years old, Maurice found it easy to walk home from school by himself.
  2. Incorrect - the passenger is not driving; the driver is driving. Therefore, the modifier is modifying the wrong person. One solution could be:
    While driving home from work, the driver was asked a lot of question by the passenger.
  3. Correct - the modifier is correctly modifying Eric.
  4. Correct - Alex is being modified by the correct modifier.
  5. Correct - Jeremiah is being modified by the correct modifier.
  6. Incorrect - Currently, many dogs is being modified. However, it should be the narrator:
    While running around the park, I was barked at by many dogs.
  7. Incorrect - this one is more tricky. Be careful here, as George's back flip is not jumping in the swimming pool; George is jumping in the swimming pool:
    Jumping in the swimming pool, George did a back flip and impressed all of his friends.



By reading this blog post, you should now have a better understanding about faulty modifiers. To keep learning some more useful grammar, feel free to read about Parallel Structure in our Grammar Yammer series.



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