“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas,” said Groucho Marx. “How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

This joke plays with the comic possibilities of the misplaced modifier. The prepositional phrase in my pajamas is a modifier (indeed, all prepositional phrases are modifiers). The question is, what does it modify?

Modifiers can be adjectival or adverbial. Adjectival modifiers modify nouns. They answer the question “which one?” or “what kind?” The following sentence has two adjectival modifiers—an adjective and a prepositional phrase:

  • Yoda is that green guy with the funny speech patterns.

The adjective green modifies the noun guyWhich guy? What kind of guy? The green guy. The prepositional phrase with the funny speech patterns also modifies the noun guyWhich guy? The guy with the funny speech patterns.

An adjective almost always comes immediately before the noun it modifies. An adjectival phrase or clause (prepositional phrase, infinitive phrase, participial phrase, or adjective clause) usually comes immediately after the noun it modifies. Whether it comes before or after, an adjectival sticks as close as possible to its noun.

  • The blue truck outran the red car with racing stripes.

How do you know the truck is blue and the car is red? How do you know that the car, not the truck, has racing stripes? Because of the proximity of the adjectivals to the nouns. I realize I’m stating the obvious here. I only mention it in case it is so obvious that you have never thought about it.

Adverbial modifiers modify verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. They tell when, where, why, how, or to what extent. When an adverbial modifies an adjective or adverb, it has to be right up next to the word it modifies, as in very long time or Lynwood sings astonishingly badly.

But when they modify verbs (as they most often do), adverbials are highly mobile. These four sentences mean the same thing, no matter where you put the adverb merrily:

  • Merrily we roll along.
  • We merrily roll along.
  • We roll merrily along.
  • We roll along merrily.

Likewise, the adverbial clause when I am eating watermelon is mobile in these sentences:

  • When I am eating watermelon, I find it easy to believe that God loves me.
  • I find it easy to believe that God loves me when I am eating watermelon.

So to recap: there are two kinds of modifiers—adjectival and adverbial. An adjectival will stick as close as possible to the noun it modifies. An adverbial modifier is much more mobile (as long as it modifies a verb).

A misplaced modifier is simply a modifier that is supposed to modify one word, but is closer to another word that it could also modify. The problem usually starts with the fact that adverbials are mobile and adjectivals are not. Here is a good example of a misplaced modifier:

  • No one was injured in the explosion, which was attributed to a buildup of gas by one town official.

The writer’s point is that one town official attributed the explosion to a buildup of gas. In theory, the adverbial prepositional phrase “by one town official” is moveable. But by moving the phrase to the end of the sentence, the writer has put it right next to the noun phrase “a buildup of gas,” creating the impression that the town official suffered such a level of gastrointestinal distress that he was a danger not only to himself but also to his neighbors.

If the mobility of adverbials is the cause of many misplaced modifiers, it is also the solution for many. It is no difficult thing to move that misplaced prepositional phrase closer to the verb it modifies:

  • No one was hurt in the explosion, which was attributed by one town official to a buildup of gas.

The astute reader will have observed already that if it weren’t for the passive construction was attributed, there would have been no misplaced modifier. The passive voice, as I often say, is frequently an accomplice to more serious grammatical crimes. Turn that passive verb was attributed to the active voice, and the sentence fixes itself:

  • No one was hurt in the explosion, which one town official attributed to a buildup of gas.

Let us return to Groucho Marx’s joke:

  • One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

When you read that first sentence, you probably assume that the prepositional phrase in my pajamas is adverbial, telling how or under what conditions Groucho Marx shot an elephant. In the second sentence, however, it becomes apparent that in my pajamas is adjectival, telling us which elephant got shot—the one in Groucho Marx’s pajamas. And the grammar bears out that reading: the phrase comes immediately after the noun, just as an adjectival should.

Related to misplaced modifiers are dangling modifiers. You may have heard the phrase dangling participles; that’s because dangling modifiers are usually (though not always) participles.

When a clause starts with an adjectival, the reader (unconsciously) expects that adjectival to modify the subject. Remember, an adjectival modifies the closest noun, and since the subject is the first noun on the main line of a clause, it will be the nearest noun to any modifier that comes before the clause. If an adjectival modifier at the beginning of a clause doesn’t modify the subject, we call that modifier a dangling modifier. Here are some examples of dangling modifiers:

  • Locked in a vault for fifty years, the owner decided to sell the jewels.
  • Plunging a thousand feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite falls.
  • Being in a dilapidated condition, Kenny was able to buy the house cheap.
  • Careening around a curve at fifty miles per hour, the deer was struck by the car.

In each of these sentences, if you identify the grammatical subject, you can see that the modifier at the beginning of the sentence doesn’t modify that subject. The owner wasn’t locked in a vault for fifty years. “We” didn’t plunge a thousand feet into a gorge. Kenny wasn’t in a dilapidated condition (or, even if he was, that wasn’t why he was able to get the house cheap).

Sometimes you can fix a dangling modifier by moving it closer to the noun it’s supposed to modify.

  • We saw Yosemite Falls plunging a thousand feet into the gorge.

Sometimes you can fix a dangling modifier by turning a phrase into a clause.

  • The owner decided to sell the jewels that had been locked in a vault for fifty years. (The participle locked in a vault becomes an adjective clause modifying jewels.)
  • Because the house was in a dilapidated condition, Kenny was able to buy it cheap. (The participle being in a dilapidated condition becomes an adverbial phrase answering why Kenny was able to buy the house cheap.)

Sometimes, you will not be surprised to hear, you can fix a dangling modifier by getting rid of the passive voice:

  • Careening around a curve at fifty miles an hour, the car struck the deer. (In this case, rendering the sentence active brings the noun car into the subject position, next to the participial phrase that is supposed to modify it).

In short, to fix a dangling modifier, you can move the adjectival closer to the noun it modifies, you can move a noun closer to the adjectival by which it is modified, or you can turn a phrase into a clause that incorporates the noun that is being modified.

By MGM-photo by Ted Allan – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37817433