April 19, 2014

Writing: Misplaced Modifiers

The key to avoiding (or removing) wayward modifiers is to attend to the meaning and purpose of EVERY word in a sentence. If you cannot explain what the word or phrase is doing, why use it. It’s the nutritional equivalent of eating berries off of an unidentified bush: It may work out okay, even be a tasty treat, or you may end up in the emergency room getting a tube stuck down your throat.

Let’s look at an example:

“The gathering was a reunion for the eight puppies rescued from a hollow log where they were huddled during the snowy night of Jan. 6 by big-hearted Butte Falls area residents Anna Diehl and her husband, Rick Martin.” Medford Mail TribuneDo you see it?

If we are to believe this sentence, the eight puppies were huddled by two Butte Falls residents. They may be big-hearted, but something tells me they didn’t spend the night in a log. The prepositional phrase “by big-hearted Butte Falls area residents Anna Diehl and her husband, Rick Martin” is supposed to tell us who rescued the pups; therefore, it needs to be next to the verb.

Here is another example of a failure to attend to just what a phrase is doing:

“Two hours later, Diffenderffer was rescued by Indian firefighters, who were under fire from the terrorists inside the hotel, using a cherry picker to bring him to safety.” Delaware OnlineIs this one a little clearer?

Can you see the terrorists on the cherry picker? Well, they shouldn’t be. The firefighters are the ones who used the cherry picker. In this case, more sentences with fewer phrases might be the best solution.

Sometimes it’s a single word that slips a little too far one way or another.

“It’s important, therefore, to master the making of two or three different kinds [of dressing] that will enhance a cold dish of mixed vegetables, meat, some kind of fish, poultry or fruit.”The writer wants us to know that the vegetables, meat and fish should be cold, not the plate.

Even if the reader knows what the writer means, a misplaced modifier in still misplaced.

“The sight of a man dressed in a black suit, overcoat and derby, standing on a street corner eating peanuts, usually attracts little attention in Yonkers…” NYTThe corner is not eating peanuts; the man is. Move the modifier closer to the noun it modifies.

The lesson should be clear at this point: Place modifiers next to the words or phrases they modify. Distance makes for confusion.

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