Depending on Word Order, English (or…Misplaced Modifiers)

I was close to giving up on the Twitter-verse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great PLN tool, one especially useful for teachers. It’s just that the sheer content is often overwhelming (and underwhelming), but every once and while you find a jewel and it keeps you tweeting a little longer. “The English Language On Word Order Depends” must have passed through numerous Twitter feeds before it landed in mine via Sandy Millin, and when it did find its way into a cacophony of tweets greeting me on screen, I was immediately drawn in by the title. And then the content.

In this brief article by Debra Lee Luskin, the importance of word order in English is illustrated with some excellent and hilarious examples, such as this one from Groucho Marx:

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

This article couldn’t have come at a better time because I had just read a number of mistakes similar to these while grading my students’ work. I knew I had to teach this, and soon. The issue here is not so much word order (which is very broad) but dangling and misplaced modifiers. Misplaced modifiers occur when a modifying word or phrase (e.g. “in my pajamas”) is placed far away from the thing it is modifying (e.g. “I”, Groucho Marx). It is a dangling modifier if when a modifier does not have a clear target in the sentence. In either case, the entire meaning of the sentence becomes ambiguous, hilarious, or simply difficult to understand.

All students should be able to recognize and fix misplaced and dangling modifiers. So, I decided to make a brief and simple power point to illustrate (1) the importance of word order, (2) what a misplaced modifier is, (3) and how to fix it. Then, I created a group activity that gives each student practice recognizing and correcting misplaced modifiers in a fun manner. Finally, I pointed students to a number of resources on the web for learning about misplaced and dangling modifiers, including my favorite grammar website, Grammar Bytes.



  1. After going through the Power Point with students, break them into groups of four or five.
  2. Give each group their cut-up strips face down in a single pile.
  3. Set up the white board
    1. Divide the board into two. Label one side “Correct” and the other side “Incorrect”.
    2. For each team, place two pieces of blank paper onto the board, one on each labeled side.
    3. Label the papers with the team’s names or numbers.
  4. Explain the activity to the students
    1. When the activity begins, each student should take a strip.
    2. After reading the sentence, they must decide if it is correct or incorrect.
      • If it is correct, they should tape it to their team’s paper on the “Correct” side of the board.
      • If it is incorrect, they should fix it, and then tape it to their team’s paper on the “Incorrect” side of the board.
      • They should then sit down and take another strip.
    3. The first team to finish all strips will win three points (the second team wins two points, the third team wins one)
  5. After all teams have finished, remove the correct and incorrect papers from the board. Distribute them to a team other than the one indicated on the paper. You will have teams check each other’s work.
  6. Go over the correct answers, eliciting student-made corrections to incorrect sentences.
  7. For each sentence identified as correct, teams receive one point. For each sentence identified as incorrect and correctly fixed, teams recieve one point.
  8. The team with the most points wins. Shower them with praise, candy, roses, etc.

I hope you enjoy this activity. Feel free to modify it. Let me know how it goes in the comments!