A misplaced modifier is when the modifier isn’t next to the word it modifies. Example: “He saw a bird through binoculars that he couldn’t identify.” What can’t he identify? The binoculars or the bird? The solution is to place the modifying phrase next to the word it modifies or rewrite the sentence for clarity. In this case, relocating the phrase fixes the problem: “He saw a bird that he couldn’t identify through binoculars.”
Another mistake is a dangling modifier. When there is no word in the sentence for the phrase to believably modify, then the modifier dangles by itself. Example: “Sailing in the Prince William Sound, many glaciers can be seen.” The glaciers can’t be sailing, so the modifying phrase is dangling. To fix it, either add the appropriate word the phrase modifies or change the phrase: “Sailing in the Prince William Sound, the tourists saw many glaciers” OR “Many glaciers can be seen by tourists when sailing in the Prince William Sound.”
The third kind of mistake is a split modifier. Sometimes a writer places the modifier between two words it could conceivably modify, confusing the reader about the sentence’s meaning. Example: “When only five years old, Joyce taught her sister to knit.” Who’s five? Joyce or the sister? Either one is plausible. In this case, the solution is to make clear which noun the phrase modifies: “When she was only five years old, Joyce taught her sister to knit.”
Two tips can help writers avoid misplaced, dangling, and split modifiers. First, make sure there’s a word in the sentence for the modifier to believably modify. Next, place the modifier as close as possible to that word.