Take away the subject and verb of a sentence and you’re left mostly with modifiers of one sort or another. I’m not referring to the single-word adjectives and adverbs—they should, like pepper, be used sparingly—but to adverbial and adjectival phrases and clauses used to plug in additional description and clarification and/or alter the structure of your sentences so they read less like a Dick and Jane reader.
Like anything, these phrases and clauses can be overused, but the real problem is that they are easily misplaced within a sentence. The result is that what we intended to say isn’t said.
The primary violations come from unintentionally modifying the wrong nouns (adjectives) or verbs (adverbs). One example I like: “I read there was a big fire in yesterday’s paper.” If that was the intended sentence, the rest of the story might be about the house that burned down after the reader dropped his burning newspaper onto the carpet. Obviously, the speaker intended to say, “I read in yesterday’s newspaper there was a big fire.”
We don’t catch these misplaced modifiers because we have abused them for so long in our informal conversational communications that we fail to hear or see the misuse in print. Usually when something doesn’t sound or read right, it’s likely not right. But, for some reason, our eyes don’t catch what our ears have grown accustomed to not hearing, which makes misplaced modifiers a problem for self-editing writers who already face the challenges associated with trying to read and edit their own work with fresh eyes. Our observations of what has been written are obscured by our intentions behind what we think we wrote.
I don’t want this to read like some dedicated grammarian’s nit picking, but careless use of modifiers detracts from a writer’s clarity and can damage his or her credibility. An example of the impact that a misplaced modifier can have on a sentence is made clear by the following two sentences: “Only I love you.” – or – “I love only you.”
The problem is with the misplaced adverb only. There are a few other adverbs that can create similar confusion—almost, just, nearly. These are what I call double-agent adverbs because they can modify nouns as well as verbs. Take this sentence: “Thomas nearly ate the whole chicken.” The intent was to let us know that Thomas ate almost all the chicken, but what the sentence actually says is he ate none of it. He merely nearly ate.
Two more examples:
The committee meets only on Wednesdays.
The committee only meets on Wednesdays.
The first sentence tells us that the committee has but one weekly meeting, on Wednesdays. The second sentence tells us that the committee, when it gets together on Wednesdays, only meets and apparently takes no actions and makes no decisions. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but their meanings are considerably different. Once again, misplacement of the adverb is the culprit. The same thing can happen when you misplace an adverbial prepositional phrase. Which of the following two sentences states the likely intention of the writer and the reality of the scene?
The runners stood ignoring the crowd in their lanes.
The runners stood in their lanes ignoring the crowd.
There is a distinct difference between the crowd that apparently is blocking the runners by standing in their lanes and the runners who are focused on the race and thus not paying attention to the crowd.
The cure for this easily committable error is rather simple—attach your prepositional phrase directly to the word it modifies. The runners stood where? In their lanes. When you put a phrase at the end of your sentence, the crowd gets in the way of the runners and the intended clarity of the sentence. Note: This sort of injected “dis-clarity” frequently occurs when the offending phrase is plugged into the end of the sentence. That should be a red flag that tells you to conduct a clarity check.
Another danger for confusion arises from what I call “cross-eyed” modifiers—when the adverb is located between two clauses or phrases without clearly identifying which clause or phrase is intended to be modified. The modifier can look, and thus spray its modification in either direction. The example I like here is “The governor promised after her reelection she would not raise taxes.” So which is it? She promised that she would not raise taxes after she was elected or that after she was elected she promised not to raise taxes. The distinction might be important.
“Students who practice writing often will benefit.” Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. But, “Students who often practice writing will benefit” makes the intent of the writer easily understood. These students always reap the benefits of practice. But notice that the second—correct—sentence doesn’t quite sound correct? The reason is that in conversation we have said things wrong for so long that wrong sounds right and right can sound wrong. We have glossed over our errors so often that we fail to catch them when we write or read them.
We’re not drawing lines here between absolutes of right and wrong. A cross-eyed modifier is merely unclear and creates unwanted confusion. When you write, you want to be both clear and correct.
Be aware, too, of the “man who wasn’t there” trap. It’s taken from the William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965) poem “Antigonish” (1899):
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.
The principal of the man who wasn’t there trap shows up in sentences like “Turning the key in the lock, Holmes quietly slipped into the room.” The subject of the verb “turning” has been dropped but we pick it up in the main sentence—Holmes. We could have written the sentence this way: “Holmes, turning the key in the lock, slipped into the room.” Either way is correct and the alternative structure allows us to interject variety. Keep in mind, however, that when you play with structure you need to keep an eye on clarity.
The corner we can paint ourselves into happens when a modifier, typically a participle or infinitive phrase, is left dangling because we’ve moved the word it actually modifies to another part of the sentence and end up in a puddle of muddle. A few examples:
Regretfully declining the dessert menu, the waiter brought us our bill.
After getting a new job, my commuting costs have doubled.
To recover from surgery, the doctor recommended bed rest.
When in doubt, make the actual subject—“waiter”, “commuting costs”, and “doctor”—into the subject of the modifier and see if it makes sense. (Modify the subject to assure agreement!) If the new sentence doesn’t make sense, fix it.
(The waiter), Regretfully declining the dessert menu, brought us our bill.
(My commuting costs), After getting a new job, have doubled.
(The doctor), To recover from surgery, recommended bed rest.
These fixes are usually fairly easy. It’s called rewriting! Don’t just move things around, but think about what you want to emphasize in your sentence and construct it accordingly.
After we regretfully declined the dessert menu, our waiter brought us our bill.
My commuting costs doubled after I got my new job. (Or flip it!)
The doctor recommend bed rest in order to recover from surgery. OR: After my surgery, the doctor recommended that I get plenty of bed rest.
There are two things at play that cause the confusion. The first is the consequence of an effort to be concise. Conciseness is good, clarity is better. Note also that the offending sentences often employ the participle form of the verb: declining, getting. Right behind my general rule to avoid use of the passive voice comes the directive to avoid the use of the participle verb phrase form.
Variety is the spice of life as well and writing and reading, so don’t avoid a potential problem by avoiding it. Write, edit and rewrite for clarity. Every writer needs to be dedicated to remove careless confusion from his or her diction. The neat thing about writing is that once you start to pay attention to a potential issue, it becomes an automatic response and you catch yourself spotting errors as you write rather than when you edit.
[Special Note: The challenge in writing about grammar is coming up with examples. I think authors likely “borrow” examples from others and tweak them to make them look like their own. That’s a sort of borderline plagiarism. I didn’t tweak my examples, instead, to borrow a phrase from the late U.S. Senator, linguist, and semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, I “stole them fair and square” from Mark Lester and Larry Beason. (The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, 2005) Thanks guys.]