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Home > Publications > Quill > Writing: Keeping Modifiers In Their Place



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Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Writing: Keeping Modifiers In Their Place

Words & Language Toolbox

By Paula LaRocque

Mistakes with modifiers are common in media writing. But they’re also easy to recognize and remedy. Most can reside comfortably under the heading “misplaced.” That’s what usually goes wrong with errant modifiers, whether they dangle or squint: They end up in the wrong place.

Modifiers are optional words, phrases or clauses that provide description in sentences by modifying (changing) other words, phases or clauses. Modifiers can add detail, limit or otherwise alter the meaning of another word or phrase.

Because modifier placement is essential to clarity, careful writers keep modifiers as close as possible to whatever they modify — usually directly before. For example, “only” is the modifier below. Watch how its placement dictates the sentence’s meaning:

• He only had a few bucks.

• Only he had a few bucks.

• He had only a few bucks.

The first two examples misplace the modifier. In the first, can “only” modify “had”? How can we “only have”? In the second, is it only HE who has a few bucks? Everyone else is broke? Is that the sense of the sentence? The third example — “only a few bucks” — correctly places the modifier directly in front of the phrase it modifies.

“Only” is a commonly misplaced modifier. So is “single” (as in single best, single worst, single most):

• It was the single best event of the summer.

• His description of the murder was the single worst account I’ve heard in 50 years of policing.

• They said the discovery was the single most important result of their research.

The problem is that “single” doesn’t modify such superlatives as “best,” worst” and “most.” It modifies something else in the sentence — and it’s worth it in grace and precision to discover what that something else is. In these examples, it’s the best single event, the worst single account and the most important single result.

A squinting (or two-way) modifier confuses because it’s placed in the sentence in such a way that it could sensibly modify two elements. In the examples below, “rarely,” “recently” and “almost” are squinting modifiers:

• Adults who napped rarely were tired.

•The diamond necklace Mary inherited recently was stolen.

• John almost failed every part of the physical fitness test.

Is it that adults who rarely napped are tired? Or adults who napped are rarely tired?

Did Mary recently inherit the necklace? Or was it recently stolen?

Did John almost fail every part of the test? Or did he fail almost every part of the test?

The dangling modifier is another common placement error. Danglers often set up ridiculous or amusing situations by misplacing words or phrases so they seem to modify the wrong element in the sentence.

A reporter wrote, for example, that a suspect “was of medium height with curly blonde hair weighing about 200 pounds.” And a film critic wrote: “The movie reminded me of a Spencer Tracy film I saw with Katharine Hepburn.”

We know that the suspect weighed about 200 pounds, not his hair. And that Hepburn did not attend the movie with the critic; rather, she starred in it. More:

• Witnesses said the officer repeatedly hit the suspect with the nightstick.

• After discussing it with the surgeon, the prognosis was less daunting.

• Having said that, his career in business has not helped him meet the challenges of high office.

Who has the nightstick, the suspect or the officer? Did the prognosis discuss something with the surgeon? And does “having said that” modify “his career”? We see with the last two examples that some modifiers dangle because what they actually modify is not present in the sentence. Fixing such danglers means providing the missing element. Here, we need a subject for the discussion with the surgeon and for the phrase “having said that”:

• After discussing it with the surgeon, he found his prognosis less daunting.

• Having said that, I want to add that his career in business has not helped . . .

Aside from keeping modifiers as close as possible to whatever they modify, the best defense against modifier mistakes is reading our work aloud. If we’ve crafted a sentence that says something we didn’t intend, chances are we’ll catch the error if we hear it. “Neighbors said she walked the dog in an abbreviated halter top” might get past our writer’s (and our editor’s) eye. But if we listen as well as look, we’ll probably understand that it’s the dog who seems skimpily attired — rather than the dog-sitter. ***

Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest fiction is a mystery novel, “Monkey See,” available on Amazon.com. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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