Misplaced modifiers have been a part of the English language since time immemorial. In fact, they have often made their way into comedy routines because of the ambiguous meanings they can create. The famous comic actor Groucho Marx once remarked: “Yesterday, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know.” The two possibilities for who is wearing the pajamas makes the joke funny, but it also serves to remind us of how important it is to have clear properly placed modifiers.
On the sentence error and sentence improvement sections, one of the College Board's favorite tricks is to insert a misplaced modifier. For example, you might see sentences like the following:
“I saw a lot of beautiful tropical fish on summer vacation.”
“Covered in hot melted cheese, we ate the delicious pizza”
At first glance, there may seem to be nothing wrong with these sentences. We can clearly ascertain their meanings. However, if you look closer at the modifiers (“on summer vacation” and “covered in hot melted cheese”) we can see the problem. It wasn't the fish taking a summer vacation. It was me. It wasn't us covered in hot melted cheese. It was the pizza. Though we may know the intended meaning of the sentence, because of the misplaced modifiers, these sentences are incorrect.
The place to look out for these on the SAT Sentence Improvement section is especially when you are dealing with possessives.
“Long considered some of the greatest works in American literature, Mark Twain's books continue to interest audiences today.”
“Long considered one of America's greatest authors, Mark Twain wrote many of the books that we read in our literature classes today.”
Both of these sentences are correct because in the first the modifier is modifying the works and in the second it modifies the author. However, it is easy to miss these mistakes when the modifiers are exchanged.
“Long considered one of America's greatest authors, Mark Twain's books continue to interest audiences today.”
“Long considered some of the greatest works in American literatures, Mark Twain wrote many of the book that we read in our literature classes today.”
Both of these sentences are incorrect because the modifier does not fit. This should always be one of the first potential problems that you check for. However, be extra careful of modifiers when you see a possessive as in these aforementioned examples.