One of comedian Groucho Marx's most famous jokes involves a pachyderm and some sleepwear.
"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas," he says. "How he got in my pajamas I don't know!"
This joke is a play on a grammatical error called a misplaced modifier, where a descriptive phrase or word is placed in the wrong part of the sentence.
The modifier errors on the SAT Writing may not be quite as funny as Groucho's, but it's still important that you understand how they work. To that end, we'll be covering both basic grammatical concepts behind faulty modifiers and how to apply that knowledge on the test:
- Key Principle: Modifiers Must Be Next to What They Modify
- Dangling Modifiers: Modifying Phrases at the Beginning of Sentences
- Misplaced Modifiers: Modifier Order Within Sentences
- SAT Writing Tips and Tricks
- Practice Questions
Feature image credit: Valerie via Flickr
Modifiers Must Be Next to the Thing They're Modifying
The heading says it all: the most important concept to remember when dealing with modifiers is that they need to be next to the word they're describing.
Sometimes these types of mistakes are obvious:
Bird for sale by flightless woman.
You have to figure that the bird is flightless, not the woman. The sentence should be:
Flightless bird for sale by woman.
However, on the SAT, this kind of error is often harder to spot. Take a look at the following sentence:
Despite having finished her test, the teacher wouldn't let Jenna leave until the class was over.
There's nothing obviously wrong with this sentence, but let's think about what it's actually saying. It starts with the modifier "despite having finished her test." Logically, that phrase would seem to be describing Jenna, but since it's located next to "the teacher," the sentence is actually saying that the teacher has finished her test. That doesn't make much sense, so we need to reorder the sentence to place the modifier next to what it's modifying:
The teacher wouldn't let Jenna leave until the class was over, despite the fact that she had finished her test.
There are two main types of faulty modifiers: dangling modifiers, which involve phrases at the beginning of sentences (e.g. the example about Jenna), and misplaced modifiers, which involve the order of words and phrases within sentences (e.g. the example about the bird). Almost all of the faulty modifiers questions on the SAT deal with dangling modifiers, so we'll cover those first.
Flightless birds, not flightless women
Dangling Modifiers: Modifying Phrases at the Beginning of Sentences
Questions about dangling modifiers only appear in the Improving Sentences section, but they're very common. You're essentially guaranteed to see at least one and may see as many four, so it's extremely important that you understand how to approach them.
When a sentence begins with a modifying phrase, the intro must be immediately followed by a comma and then the noun it's describing. Incorrect sentences of this type start with modifying phrases that describe something other than the noun immediately following the comma. For example:
Swimming toward the shore, a little girl was building a sand castle.
The "little girl" can't be "swimming toward the shore" and "building a sand castle" at the same time—something's missing.
There are two ways to correct this kind of error: you can either replace the incorrect noun (in this case "little girl") with a correct one, making any changes necessary to preserve the meaning of the sentence (fix 1), or you can turn the intro phrase into a clause that includes the the subject the phrase is meant to be describing (fix 2). These techniques sound more complicated than they are, so let's put them to use remedying our issue with the little girl who is in two places at once:
Fix 1: Swimming toward the shore, I saw a little girl building a sand castle.
Fix 2: As I swam toward the shore, a little girl was building a sand castle.
Both versions of the sentence are equally correct. You won't be asked to choose between the two options—instead, which approach makes more sense will depend on which part of the sentence is underlined and what answer choices you're given.
Keep in mind that some sentences will use this construction without asking about it (there will be an unrelated error instead), but look out for sentences that begin with verb participles (verbs ending in "ing," "ed," or "en") or prepositional phrases followed by a comma, especially if the underlined portion begins immediately after the comma.
Situation 1: Main Clause Underlined
If only the main clause is underlined, you'll need to pick the answer with the correct subject—what I refer to above as fix 1. For example:
Incorrect: After seven straight hours of studying, Jose's brain was fried.
Correct: After seven straight hours of studying, Jose felt like his brain was fried.
Even though the distinction may not seem important, "Jose" and "Jose's brain" aren't actually the same—Jose's brain can't study. If only the second half of the sentence is underlined, the best way to correct this issue is to replace the incorrect noun "Jose's brain" with the correct one "Jose."
When you see an Improving Sentences question like this with the main clause underlined, you must find the answer choice or choices that start with the correct noun.
Start by ruling out any answers that don't start with a noun or pronoun or that start with a noun other than the one the introductory phrase is meant to be describing. If there is more than one answer choice remaining, check for other grammatical issues.
Let's work through an example question from a real SAT:
The sentence begins with the modifier "spread by rat fleas," which suggests that there may be a dangling modifier. The first step, then, is to determine what that phrase describes. It's definitely not "millions of people in medieval Europe," so we can know there's a modifier error and can rule out A.
We can also eliminate B, which begins with a conjunction instead of a noun, and C, which begins with the unclear pronoun "this."
With only D and E remaining, it's clear that "bubonic plague" is spread by rat fleas. Both answers are grammatical, but E is much simpler and clearer, so it must be the answer.
Situation 2: Both Modifier and Main Clause Underlined
You may also see dangling modifier questions presented with both the modifier and part, or all, of the main clause underlined, though this configuration is much less common.
In these cases, the correct answer usually rewrites the sentence to eliminate the faulty modifier entirely, so it's difficult to anticipate what the correct choice will be. Instead, you want to approach these questions by process of elimination:
- Determine what the error is—figure out how the modifier is wrong so that you can rule out any choices that make the same mistake
- Eliminate answers that aren't grammatical—rule out any answers that create other issues, like run-ons or sentence fragments
- Choose clearest, most concise answer—of the remaining choices pick the one that expresses the point with the simplest structure and fewest extra words
This process may seem a bit vague, so let's work through an official SAT example:
First, let's figure out what's wrong with this sentence. It's a bit confusing because there's no obvious error. We can start by separating the two independent clauses to make what's happening in the underlined portion clearer:
She was concerned about how Hank would react to the incident. In searching his face, he did not seem to be at all embarrassed or troubled.
Now it's clearer that "in searching his face" is a modifying phrase, currently describing Hank (since "he" comes immediately after the comma). But based on the context, we know the person searching the face is actually "she," so we've located the error. We can rule out A, as well as D, which repeats the same error.
Choice B swaps out "it" for "he," which doesn't solve the problem, because "it" is still not the person searching Hank's face. B is also wrong.
Choices C and E both fix the misplaced modifier issue, but E is needlessly wordy ("being" is usually wrong), so C is the correct answer.
Like sneakers, modifiers aren't meant to dangle (image credit: Carsten ten Brink)
Misplaced Modifiers: Modifier Placement in Sentences
Now that we've covered how to approach questions about modifiers at the beginning of sentences, let's talk about questions that deal with modifier placement within sentences. Questions on this topic can appear in both the Improving Sentences and Identifying Sentence Errors, but they are much less common than questions on dangling modifiers.
The key rule for modifier placement—a modifier must be next to whatever it's modifying—remains the same. A misplaced modifier occurs when a modifier is separated from the word it's meant to describe:
The werewolf mailed a package to the vampire full of garlic.
Despite what the sentence says, it's clear that the "package" and not the "vampire" is meant to be full of garlic. In order to correct this error, we need to switch around the order of the phrases:
The werewolf mailed a package full of garlic to the vampire.
Because the exact nature of this kind of error can vary so widely, there's no single best way to approach the questions.
However, many of these errors involve gerunds, especially on the Identifying Sentence Errors. Remember that like other modifiers gerunds must be next to what they're describing, i.e. whatever or whoever is doing the action.
To help clarify, let's go through some SAT style examples, starting with this Identifying Sentence Errors question:
On (A) her most recent (B) vacation to Istanbul, Jill stumbled upon (C) a fantastic jewelry shop walking (D) through the massive market. No error. (E)
Reading through this sentence, you may not immediately notice anything incorrect—in fact, it seems just fine. But before picking E, we need to check each of the other underlined portions.
"On" is an idiomatically correct preposition and "most recent" is a correct superlative, so we can rule out A and B. "Stumbled upon" includes a correctly conjugated verb and an idiomatically correct preposition, so C is also incorrect.
This leaves only D, "walking." When a gerund is underlined, you must check placement—is the modifier next to the noun that is walking? No, it's next to "jewelry shop," which can't walk. As such, D is the correct answer.
Next, take a look at this Improving Sentences example:
Kate Hudson began acting at a young age, being Goldie Hawn's daughter.
A. Kate Hudson began acting at a young age, being Goldie Hawn's daughter.
B. Kate Hudson began acting at a young age, and she was Goldie Hawn's daughter.
C. Kate Hudson, who as Goldie Hawn's daughter began acting at a young age.
D. Being Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter began acting at a young age.
E. Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter, began acting at a young age.
The misplaced modifier in this sentence is fairly obvious: "being Goldie Hawn's daughter" is clearly meant to describe "Kate Hudson" not "a young age." However, there's no answer choice that places the modifier next to what it's modifying, so we need to narrow down the choices with process of elimination.
We already ruled out A (which is the same as the original sentence), and we can eliminate C because it's a fragment. B, D, and E are all grammatically correct, so we need to pick the clearest and most concise answer.
B is incorrect because it make the sentence much longer than it needs to be by splitting it into two independent clause. D doesn't work because the word order is confusing. Describing Kate Hudson as Goldie Hawn's daughter makes sense; describing Goldie Hawn's daughter as Kate Hudson doesn't.
E is correct because it puts the (slightly rephrased) modifier next to what it's modifying.
This snowman is misplaced; make sure your modifiers aren't. (Image credit: Richie Diesterheft)
Applying Modifier Rules on SAT Writing Questions
Now that we've gone over all the rules you need to know, let's review some of the key points about how to spot and answer faulty modifier questions on the SAT Writing section.
What to watch for:
- Prepositional phrases at the beginning of sentences where the clause after the comma is underlined
- Verb participles (verbs ending in "ing," "ed," or "en") at the beginning of sentences
- In ISE questions, underlined gerunds
Rules to keep in mind:
- A modifier must be next to what it's modifying
- Gerunds must be next to the noun doing the action
- If a sentence starts with a descriptor, whatever comes after the comma must be the noun it’s describing
Helpful SAT Writing tips:
- Think about both what a modifier is currently describing and what it's actually meant to be describing
- Watch out for answers that fix the original modifier issue but are ungrammatical in another way
- Remember that there are a lot of different ways to fix faulty modifiers—use process of elimination to narrow down wrong answers rather than focusing on one specific way of correcting the error
- You will see these errors on the test, and they are likely unfamiliar, so make sure to review (and practice with) similar questions from real SATs
Test Your Knowledge!
Try out the principles we've discussed on these SAT Writing practice questions:
1. One of the spiciest cuisines in the world, Sichuan has recently become very popular in the United States.
A. Sichuan has recently become
B. Sichuan has most recently become known as
C. Sichuan food has recently become
D. the cuisines of Sichuan have become
E. recently Sichuan has become
2. Thinking, perhaps, that their questions won't be answered, the number of students who attend career counseling has dropped precipitously.
A. the number of students who attend career counseling has dropped precipitously.
B. the number of students who attend career counseling is dropping precipitously.
C. a dropping number of students are attending career counseling.
D. students are attending career counseling in ever lower numbers.
E. students, the number of whom attend career counseling has dropped precipitously.
3. By gazing sadly upon his owner, Tina was convinced to give the puppy more food.
A. Tina was convinced to give the puppy more food.
B. Tina was convinced by the puppy to give him more food.
C. the puppy was convinced by Tina to give him more food.
D. convincing Tina to give him more food, the puppy was.
E. the puppy convinced Tina to give him more food.
Answers: 1. C, 2. D, 3. E
If you're curious about the Improving Paragraphs, check out our guide the strangest type of SAT Writing question.
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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.