ACT English : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ACT English

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Modifier Placement Errors

Adapted from “The Nose Tree” in German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm (trans. Taylor, ed. 1864)

Then the king made known to all his kingdom, that whomever would heal her of this dreadful disease should be richly rewarded. Many tried, but the princess got no relief. Now the old soldier dressed himself up very sprucely as a doctor, and said he could cure her. Therefore, he chopped up some of the apple, and, to punish her a little more, gave her a dose, saying he would call to-morrow and see her again. The morrow came, and, of course, instead of being better, the nose had been growing on all night as before; and the poor princess was in a dreadful fright. So the doctor then chopped up a very little of the pear and gave it to her. He said that he was sure that it would help, and he would call again the next day. Next day came, and the nose was to be sure a little smaller. However, it was bigger than when the doctor first began to meddle with it.

Then he thought to him, "I must frighten this cunning princess a little more before I am able to get what I want from her." Therefore, he gave her another dose of the apple and said he would call on the morrow. The morrow came, and the nose was ten times bad as before.

"My good lady," said the doctor, "Something works against my medicine and is to strong for it. However, I know by the force of my art that it is this, you have stolen goods about you. I am certain of it. If you do not give them back, I can do nothing for you."

The princess denied very stoutly that she had anything of the kind.

"Very well," said the doctor, "you may do as you please, but I am sure I am correct. You will die if you do not own it." Then he went to the king, and told him how the matter stood.

"Daughter," said he, "send back the cloak, the purse, and the horn, that you stole from the right owners."

Then she ordered her maid to fetch all three and gave them to the doctor, and begged him to give them back to the soldiers. The moment he had them safe, he gave her a whole pear to eat, and the nose came right. And as for the doctor, he put on the cloak, wished the king and all his court a good day and was soon with his two brothers. They lived from that time happily at home in their palace, except when they took an airing to see the world in their coach with their three dapple-grey horses.

Which is the best form of the underlined selection, "palace, except when they took an airing to see the world in their coach"?

Possible Answers:

palace except when they took an airing to see the world in their coach

palace, except when they took an airing in their coach to see the world

palace, except when they took an airing to see the world, in their coach

NO CHANGE

Correct answer:

palace, except when they took an airing in their coach to see the world

Explanation:

The problem with the sentence is the confusing use of the prepositional phrase "in their coach." This is being used adverbially to describe where they would "take an airing." It is not an adjectival prepositional phrase demarcating a particular "world"—i.e. the one that is in their coach (whatever nonsense that might even mean)!

Example Question #2 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Taller than a tree, we bought our house when I was five.

Possible Answers:

Taller than a tree, my family bought our house when I was five.

We bought our house, which was taller than a tree, when I was five.

Taller than a tree, we bought, our house, when I was five.

NO CHANGE

Taller than a tree, I was five when we bought our house.

Correct answer:

We bought our house, which was taller than a tree, when I was five.

Explanation:

The phrase "taller than a tree" describes the house in this sentence, not the family or the author at five years old. To provide clarity, the modifier "taller than a tree" should be placed next to the noun it is modifying, the house.

Example Question #3 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Even now, I don't have a car. Instead, I take the bus. Every morning, after getting ready, the bus picks me up at a corner a few minutes' walk from my house.

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose “NO CHANGE.”

Possible Answers:

when ready

NO CHANGE

after I get ready

after having gotten ready

Correct answer:

after I get ready

Explanation:

The way this sentence is currently written, it sounds like the bus “gets ready” and then picks up the narrator; however, given the context, it would make more sense that the narrator is the one “getting ready.” To fix this sentence, we should specify who is really getting ready. The best replacement for the underlined phrase is to say “after I get ready.”

Example Question #2 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

When I was little, my family lived far from my school, and I had to get up very early to catch the school bus. In the winter, I waited for the bus in the dark. Sometimes I looked up at the stars. One cold morning, waiting in the dark, a meteor left a bright trail in the black sky.

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose “NO CHANGE.”

Possible Answers:

NO CHANGE

a meteor, waiting in the dark, left a bright trail in the black sky.

a meteor left a bright trail in the black sky, waiting in the dark.

as I waited in the dark, a meteor left a bright trail in the black sky.

Correct answer:

as I waited in the dark, a meteor left a bright trail in the black sky.

Explanation:

The way this sentence is currently worded, the phrase “waiting in the dark” sounds like it is describing the meteor; however, from the context, we know that it is actually the narrator who was waiting in the dark. To better communicate this idea, we can rephrase the sentence to specify who was waiting: “as I waited in the dark, a meteor left a bright trail in the black sky.”

Example Question #5 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Once, leaving my house, a shooting star flashed across the sky at the exact, perfect second I looked up.

Possible Answers:

as leaving the house

as I was leaving my house

NO CHANGE

leaving the house

leaving a house

Correct answer:

as I was leaving my house

Explanation:

As the sentence is written, the modifying phrase "leaving my house" is ambiguous, and could refer to the shooting star, which, hopefully, was not leaving "my house." The best way to correct the sentence would be to clarify both the time sequence, and the subject who was leaving the house: "as I was leaving my house." 

Example Question #4 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

My mother and sister, who said she had found the wallet—not to mention the money inside—had to have a serious conversation about what exactly constitutes theft.

Possible Answers:

NO CHANGE

My mother and sister, who said she had found the wallet and not to mention the money inside and had to have a serious conversation about what exactly constitutes theft.

My mother who said she had found the wallet and my sister, not to mention the money inside, had to have a serious conversation about what exactly constitutes theft.

My mother had to have a serious conversation with my sister, who said she had found the wallet—not to mention the money inside—about what exactly constitutes theft.

My mother and sister, who said she had found the wallet and, not to mention, the money, inside had to have a serious conversation about what exactly constitutes theft.

Correct answer:

My mother had to have a serious conversation with my sister, who said she had found the wallet—not to mention the money inside—about what exactly constitutes theft.

Explanation:

In the original sentence, the word "she" in the relative clause creates a certain ambiguity. The relative clause, as a modifying phrase, should not be ambiguous as regards the noun being described. In this case, the most effective way of re-writing the sentence is to separate the compound subject "My mother and sister," instead placing sister as an indirect object and putting the modifying phrase directly after the noun to which it refers.

Example Question #5 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

While running, the tree branch tripped me.

Possible Answers:

NO CHANGE

I tripped on the tree branch.

the tree branch was tripping me.

I was tripped on the tree branch.

the tree branch tripped.

Correct answer:

I tripped on the tree branch.

Explanation:

As it reads, the sentence implies that the tree branch itself tripped while running, which makes no sense. "I" was running and the tree branch tripped "me." This is a misplaced modifier error.

Example Question #6 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

One summer evening, fishing at the lake, rain began to pour from the sky.

Possible Answers:

while fishing at the lake, rain began to pour

fishing at the lake, rain pouring

NO CHANGE

while I was fishing at the lake, rain began to pour

during fishing at the lake, rain began to pour

Correct answer:

while I was fishing at the lake, rain began to pour

Explanation:

The sentence as written makes it unclear who was "fishing at the lake," was it the rain? That doesn't make sense, rain can't fish! The correct answer clarifies that "I" was fishing while rain began to pour.

Example Question #7 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Sarah Bell was elected to City Council six times after her initial defeat, which was a source of great pride for her immediate family and close friends.

Possible Answers:

it was a source of great pride for her immediate family and close friends.

this was a source of great pride for her immediate family and close friends.

her immediate family and close friends were very proud of it.

a record that was a source of great pride for her immediate family and close friends.

NO CHANGE

Correct answer:

a record that was a source of great pride for her immediate family and close friends.

Explanation:

The singular pronouns in the second clause ("which" "it", "this") all have ambiguity issues since it is unclear what exactly her family is proud of. Two of the answer choices also create comma splices. The correct answer corrects the ambiguity by stating that it was Sarah's record of successful elections that is the source of her family's pride.

Example Question #8 : Ambiguous Modifier Errors

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the sentence. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Excited to move into her new apartment, Anna's furniture was quickly removed from the truck and assembled.

Possible Answers:

Anna quickly removed from the truck and assembled the furniture.

Anna's furniture quickly removed from the truck and she assembled it.

Anna quickly removed her furniture from the truck and assembled it.

quickly removed from the truck and assembled was Anna's furniture.

NO CHANGE

Correct answer:

Anna quickly removed her furniture from the truck and assembled it.

Explanation:

As it reads, the sentence sounds as though Anna's furniture was excited to move into a new home when it was Anna who was excited, and as such, Anna should be the one performing the action in the underlined portion of the sentence. Only two of the answer choices correct this error, but one of them is still incorrect and confusing in the order it places the actions that Anna performs-who or what did she quickly remove from the truck? "Anna quickly removed the furniture from the truck and assembled it" is the most clear and grammatically correct answer.

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