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Avoiding Modifier Problems

TIP Sheet
AVOIDING MODIFIER PROBLEMS

Modifiers are words-adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, clauses-that explain, expand, and enrich sentences. Misplaced modifiers are modifiers that need to be moved elsewhere in the sentence to avoid possible confusion. The result of misplaced modifiers can be confusing or comedic-in fact, comedians take deliberate advantage of them, as in these words of Groucho Marx:

While hunting in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got into my pajamas I'll never know.

A dangling modifier is an orphan-the thing that it is intended to modify does not actually appear in the sentence at all. Revise sentences containing dangling modifiers.

Misplaced modifiers

Following are fourrules of placement that can correct the majority of modifier problems:

1. Simple adjectives precede.
2. Adjective phrases and clauses follow.
3. Adverbs move around.
4. Limiters precede.

1. Simple adjectives precede.
In the following, aromatic modifies tea, fluffy modifies socks, and cold modifies feet:

Mai set a cup of aromatic tea to steep on the counter while she pulled fluffy socks over her cold feet.

In general, an adjective modifier precedes the noun it modifies. In other words, it is aromatic tea, not "tea aromatic." Nor is it "...cup of tea to steep aromatic on the counter," or "pulled socks over her fluffy cold feet." If you are a native speaker of English, you probably knew this instinctively.

2. Adjective phrases and clauses follow.
We tend to associate phrase modifiers with the nearest preceding noun. The following example has a comic effect because we read the modifier, with a deep tan, as belonging to the nearest noun:

Incorrect:
The lifeguard dove into the surf with the deep tan. (The surf with the deep tan?)

Revised:
The lifeguard with the deep tan dove into the surf
.

Adjective phrases like this not only follow the nouns they describe (their headwords, as Tod E. Jones calls them in his online article "Common Problems of English Grammar and Punctuation"), they must follow very closely to make the proper sense.

Treat adjective clauses similarly. These are word groups that contain both a subject and verb, but are not complete because they also contain a dependent-making word (that or which, for example). They explain or otherwise expand on information in the sentence and, like adjective phrases, should immediately follow their headwords:

Incorrect:
Her sorority sponsored a blood drive to assist the disaster relief effort that they had spent almost six months planning. (Did the sorority plan the entire disaster relief effort? Or just the blood drive?)

Revised:
Her sorority sponsored a blood drive that they had spent almost six months planning to assist the disaster relief effort.

3. Adverbs move around.

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. In English, adverbs are allowed to move around quite a bit in a sentence. In the following example, the adverb quickly modifies the verb calculated, or the verb graphed, or both - but without causing a great deal of confusion no matter where it is placed.

Quickly she calculated the slope and graphed the result.

She quickly calculated the slope and graphed the result.

She calculated the slope and quickly graphed the result.

She calculated the slope and graphed the result quickly.

However, misplaced adverbs can cause ambiguity. If this happens, simply move the adverb to place it next to the headword it is intended to modify.

Incorrect:
Mikail followed the instructions for setting up the computer network carefully. (Followed the instructions carefully? Or were the instructions to set up the network carefully?)

Revised:
Mikail carefully followed the instructions for setting up the computer network.

Or:
Mikail followed the instructions for carefully setting up the computer network.

Because of the ability of adverbs to float around freely in a sentence, they are sometimes said to squint. A squinting adverb is one which seems to modify two things at the same time. Like an optical illusion, a sentence with a squinting adverb seems to mean first one thing and then another. In the following example the prepositional phrase is modifying a verb or verbal-but which?

Incorrect:
She agreed after the Rooks' game to meet her friends at Moxie's. (Did she agree to this after the game? Or did she agree to meet following the game?)

Revised:
She agreed to meet her friends at Moxie's after the Rooks' game.

Or:
After the Rooks' game she agreed to meet her friends at Moxie's.

Adverb clauses express relationships such as time, cause, purpose, and condition, using words like when, because, in order that, and if. Adverb clauses can move around in a sentence without much problem. The following adverb clause clearly modifies the verb will erode, whether the adverb clause is placed first or last:

If the Sacramento River rises fast enough, some farmland will erode along the banks.

Some farmland will erode along the banks if the Sacrament River rises fast enough.

If you think a reader may misunderstand, feel free to move the clause or revise the sentence to eliminate confusion.

4. Limiters precede.
Limiters are words like only, almost, just, nearly, or hardly. Place these words in front of their headwords. Consider the difference in meaning in the following two examples:

He does math homework almost every day.

Or:
He almost does math homework every day.

The difference - did you catch it? - is that the first subject does his math, while the second does not. In the first example, almost modifies every. In the second, almost modifies do. But one either does math, or doesn't; "almost doing" math is nonsense, unless the intended meaning is that the second speaker thinks about doing math, and gets ready to do math, but never actually does math.

Dangling modifiers
Dangling modifiers are missing their intended headwords; that is, you cannot point to any word in the main part of the sentence that the modifier refers to. In the following example, the underlined modifier refers clearly to rafters:

Staggering with exhaustion after their long day on the river, the sunburned rafters dragged their boat into the shallows.

But in the next example, the rafters have inexplicably disappeared, and the boat itself is said to be staggering with exhaustion, which of course is nonsense:

Incorrect:
Staggering with exhaustion after their long day on the river, the boat was dragged into the shallows.

Dangling modifiers frequently take the shape of -ing, or -ed phrases (gerunds and participles) and most commonly appear at the beginnings of sentences. (They also frequently involve passive voice verbs, which are less direct, less vivid, and more ambiguous. See the TIP Sheet Active and Passive Voice to learn more about this.) To fix a dangling modifier, revise the sentence to include the proper headword.

Incorrect:
Worried about finding an apartment, dozens of rental applications were filled out. (The dozens of applications were worried?)

Revised:
Worried about finding an apartment
, the two roommates filled out dozens of rental applications.

Less commonly, a dangling modifier occurs near the middle or end of a sentence, but the same principle applies. Find the modifier, identify the appropriate (missing) headword, and revise the sentence to clarify it.

Incorrect:
My GPA improved a whole point by using the textbook chapter reviews as a study guide.
(My GPA used the textbook chapter reviews?)

Revised:
I improved my GPA a whole point by using the textbook chapter reviews as a study guide.

Of course, as writers we know what we mean. But as writers with a purpose and an audience, we must use word order rules that avoid ambiguity as much as possible so that the reader also knows what we mean.

 

References
Jones, Tod E. "Common Problems of English Grammar and Punctuation." 26 May 2004. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/6354/grammar.html#Modifiers

 

 

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