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SAT Writing: Misplaced Modifiers

Many sentences begin with their subjects. But others start with a descriptive phrase known as a modifier, followed by a comma. Here are a few examples, with each modifier italicized:

Jumping up and down incessantly, the little boy annoyed all the passengers on the airplane.

Poignant and provocative, this movie was voted the best of the year.

Slithering quickly away, the snake eluded the predator.

These examples all adhere to a rule: If a sentence begins with a modifier, the thing being described must immediately follow. If it doesn’t, then the sentence contains a misplaced modifier, and the sentence is incorrect. The misplaced modifier rule is a common one tested in the Writing sections.

Here are a few examples in which the modifier is misplaced:

Travelling down the street, the brightly colored cottage caught the family’s attention.

By scrupulously practicing several hours a week, new yoga exercises can be mastered.

Influential, powerful, and potent, it is my hope that you will enjoy Beethoven’s musical selections performed tonight by our orchestra.

According to these sentences, the cottage is travelling down the street, exercises have the ability to practice, and the ambiguous pronoun “it” is influential, powerful, and potent. Of course, none of these things are true.

To correct these mistakes, ask yourself, “What is the modifier describing?” Consider the first sentence: Who is travelling down the street? The family. So the word family (not the family’s attention) must follow the phrase Travelling down the street. Who is scrupulously practicing several hours a week? You can either use the words you or one. So either you or one must follow the phrase By scrupulously practicing several hours a week. What is influential, powerful, and potent? Beethoven’s musical selections. So the phrase Beethoven’s musical selections (not the orchestra) must follow the phrase Influential, powerful, and potent.

So here are three possible ways to correct the sentences:

Travelling down the street, the family was captivated by the brightly colored cottage.

By scrupulously practicing several hours a week, you can master new yoga exercises.

Influential, powerful, and potent, Beethoven’s musical selections performed tonight by our orchestra will prove enjoyable.

With misplaced modifier questions, it’s important to realize that, most of the time, you will not be asked to rewrite the entire sentence. Most likely you’ll be asked to choose the one correctly worded sentence among five answer choices. So when you read a sentence and realize that it has a misplaced modifier, eliminate all answer choices that do not contain the correct word after the modifier. Often this step alone will result in eliminating all four incorrect answer choices.

Arash Fayz

Author Arash Fayz

Arash has been a professional in the educational field for over 10 years. He started his teaching career as an SAT instructor in 2003, while receiving a graduate degree in applied mathematics and computer science from the University of California, Los Angeles. He now uses his expertise to manage the day-to-day operations of LA Tutors and also regularly contributes to the LA Tutors blog.

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