Dangling & Misplaced Modifiers on ACT English.
In this article, we will define both dangling & misplaced modifiers on ACT English, discuss grammatical errors related to creation of faulty modifiers, and how to recognize them on the test.
When it comes to jokes, wordplay is king. Comedian Groucho Marx exploited the dangling modifier in his 1930 classic – Animal Crackers. While recounting his adventures in Africa, Captain Spaulding (Marx) famously said: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.”
This joke is funny because it plays on a grammatical error called misplaced modifier.
Although modifiers tested on the ACT English are not necessarily funny, you must learn to understand how they work.
Before we begin, let’s talk about what modifiers are. Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that provide description in sentences. Essentially, modifiers put “life” into sentences. Without modifiers, sentences would be dull, but carefully chosen, well-placed modifiers allow writers to depict situations with “colorful” accuracy.
Modifiers can be adjectives, adjective clauses, adverbs, adverb clauses, participle phrases, and prepositional phrases.
This is the most important concept to remember when dealing with Dangling & Misplaced Modifiers on ACT English – they must be next to the word or phrase that they describe (or modify). Sometimes the modifier mistakes are obvious. Sometimes, the placement of the modifier changes the meaning of the sentence. For example:
The instructor just nodded to John as she came in.
Explanation: (The instructor did not speak, she just nodded.)
The instructor nodded just to John as she came in.
Explanation: (The instructor nodded only to John.)
The instructor nodded to John just as she came in.
Explanation: (The instructor nodded when she came in.)
On the ACT English, a modifier error is a lot more difficult to identify. For example,
Incorrect: Passing the building, the broken window was clearly visible.
(the modifier “passing the building” is placed next to broken window which makes the sentence sound as if the broken window was passing the building.
Correct: Passing the building, I clearly saw the broken window.
(now, it is obvious that I was passing the building and saw the broken window.)
The ACT English section commonly tests two types of modifiers: dangling modifier, which involves phrases (participles, gerunds, and infinitives) at the beginning of sentences, and misplaced modifiers, which involve errors in the order of words or phrases within sentences. You do not need to worry about terminology; instead, concentrate on making sure you know how to identify and correct modifier errors.
Let’s talk about each in more detail.
When a sentence begins with a modifying phrase – that modifying phrase must be immediately followed by a comma and then noun the phrase is describing. This type of incorrect sentences start with modifying phrases that describe something other than the noun immediately following the comma. For example:
To walk a high wire, a pole is needed for balance.
In this sentence, “a pole” is positioned right after the introductory (modifying) phrase. The sentence sounds as if “a pole” is walking on “a high wire”.
There are two ways to correct this error:
- You can replace the incorrect noun (in this case “a pole”) with a correct one and make any changes necessary to preserve the meaning of the sentence.
- You can turn the introductory phrase into a clause that includes the subject the phrase is meant to be describing.
The resulting sentences would read:
- To walk a high wire, I needed a pole for balance.
- As I walked a high wire, a pole was needed for balance.
Because both options are equally correct, you will never be asked to choose between them. The correct answer will depend on which part of the sentence is underlined and what answer choices are given.
If only the main clause is underlined, pick an answer with the correct subject. This is what I described in #1 above. For example:
Incorrect: With tears running down her cheeks, Suzie’s sadness was obvious.
Correct: With tears running down her cheeks, Suzie was obviously sad.
Although the distinction might not seem important, “Suzie” and “Suzie’s sadness” are not the same. “Suzie’s sadness” is an emotion – it cannot cry by itself. If the main clause is underlined, the best way to correct the modifier error is to replace “Suzie’s sadness” with the subject “Suzie.”
Explanation: The phrase “in pink-tinted glasses” is placed after the word “music,” but that is impossible. Music cannot wear “pink-tinted glasses” – the woman can. So, the best place for the underlined phrase is after the word “woman.” The correct answer is B and the sentence should read, “a woman in pink-tinted glasses who was composing music in a notebook.
If only the introductory phrase is underlined, you have to convert the introductory phrase into a clause that clarifies who or what is being described. This is what I described in #2 above. Let’s analyze our example about Suzie.
Incorrect: With tears running down her cheeks, Suzie’s sadness was obvious.
Correct: Because there were tears running down Suzie’s cheeks, Suzie’s sadness was obvious.
Because we cannot change the subject (in bold), we must correct this sentence by turning the underlined phrase into a dependent clause that makes it clear that the cheeks belong to Suzie.
As written, the sentence reads as if “she” had died down, but logically, it should be the fire. Because only the introductory phrase is underlined, we cannot change “she” to “the fire.” Instead, we have to pick an answer that makes it clear that it is the fire that died down. We can eliminate choice F and choice G because it introduces a vague pronoun “it.” H and J are both talking about fire, but the word “with” in H does not make sense in the context of the sentence, so that leaves J which is the correct choice because it maintains temporal relationship (she bricks up the fire box after the fire has died down) and clarifies that it is the “fire” that has died down.
Sometimes on the ACT, you may see dangling modifiers in the context of more general sentence structure questions. In these cases, all or almost all of the sentence is underlined. While there is not a single correct approach to these types of questions, the most reliable method is to use the process of elimination to rule out any answers with grammatical issues, and pick the clearest choice among the remaining options.
First, we need to determine exactly what is “cheek to cheek.” The only thing in this sentence that has cheeks are the dancers. By definition, if a sentence starts with “cheek to cheek,” a noun or a pronoun indicating dancers must be placed immediately after. Both F and J incorrectly put other nouns after “cheek to cheek” and can be eliminated. Some students might pick F because “cheek to cheek” describes how the couples dance, but remember that the dance itself cannot be “cheek to cheek.” Choice H switches “cheek to cheek” and “relaxed two-step tempo” which makes even less sense. This leaves G, which logically orders modifiers to indicate that they describe how the couples are dancing.
Dangling & Misplaced Modifiers on ACT English. So far, we have talked about ways to correct modifier errors at the beginning of sentences. Now, let’s discuss how to handle modifier placement errors within sentences.
Rule: a modifier must be next to a word or phrase that it is modifying. More specifically, single word modifiers (usually adjectives or adverbs) should be placed before the noun they modify, while prepositional phrases should be placed immediately after the word they modify.
Incorrect: The girls wrestled monsters in pretty party dresses.
Correct: The girls in pretty party dresses wrestled monsters.
“In pretty party dresses” is a prepositional phrase that describes “the girls,” not the monsters; therefore, the modifying phrase should be placed next to “the girls.”
Incorrect: She served sandwiches to children on paper plates.
Correct: She served sandwiches on paper plates to children.
The first sentence sounds as if the children were on paper plates. The only thing that could be on paper plates are “the sandwiches,” so moving the phrase “on paper plates” next to “sandwiches” corrects misplaced modifier error.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but the idea that modifiers should be next to the word or phrase they modify is a good rule of thumb. Keep this rule in mind as we practice with a real ACT example.
The first step to answering this question is recognizing the word EXCEPT. This means that three of the options are correct and only one is incorrect. To detect the one choice that doesn’t work, plug the underlined portion into the sentence as follows:
- The O’odham in the 1700s first encountered the guitars of Spanish missionaries.
- In the 1700s, the O’odham first encountered the guitars of Spanish missionaries.
- The O’odham first encountered the guitars in the 1700s of Spanish missionaries.
- The O’odham first encountered the guitars of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s.
Can you find the wrong choice now? If you answered C, great job! Placing “in the 1700s” after the word “guitars” interrupts the noun phrase “guitars of Spanish missionaries.” A is acceptable because it is talking about what the O’odham did in the 1700s. B and D are acceptable because each modifies the sentence as a whole by describing when this event occurred.
Dangling & Misplaced Modifiers on ACT English. Now that we’ve discussed all the rules you need to know, let’s review some of the main points about how to recognize and answer dangling and misplaced modifier questions on the ACT English.
- Prepositional phrases at beginning of sentences where the introductory clause, the main clause (clause after the comma), or both are underlined.
- “Placement” questions.
- A modifier must be next to the word or phrase that it is modifying.
- Adjectives and adverbs have to be placed before the word they are describing.
- Prepositional phrases must be placed immediately after the clause they are modifying.
- Always be on a lookout for questions with EXCEPT, NOT, and LEAST. Although they’re in all CAPS, they are still easy to skip over.
- Consider what a modifier should be describing and what it is actually describing.
- Beware of the long answers that correct the modifier error but introduce some other kind of grammatical error.
- Beware of the answers that introduce a faulty modifier while trying to rephrase the original sentence.
- Keep in mind that there are many ways to fix faulty modifiers. Use process of elimination to get rid of wrong answers.
Now that you’ve learned everything you need to know about modifier usage on the ACT, brush up your knowledge about other frequently tested topics like commas and subject-verb agreement.
Do you know what’s actually tested on the ACT and how to ace the test? Read our articles on what is actually tested on the ACT English and 5 key strategies to help you ace the exam.
Do you know when to study? If not, consider this complete plan to studying for the ACT and take a practice test.
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