Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that restricts or provide additional information about other words, phrases, or clauses. Modifiers can be adjectives or adverbs. Modifiers that appear before the head are called premodifiers and modifiers that appear after the head are called postmodifiers.
We have a certain amount of freedom in deciding where to place our modifiers in a sentence:
We rowed the boat vigorously.
We vigorously rowed the boat.
Vigorously we rowed the boat.
Modifiers must be placed as close as possible to the words they modify.
While a correctly placed modifier enhances the meaning of the sentence, a misplaced or awkwardly placed modifier can disrupt the flow of thoughts and can create confusion in the meaning of a sentence. You can improve your writing quite a bit by paying attention to misplaced modifiers.
Certain modifiers are slippery; they slide into the wrong position in the sentence. The most dangerous are only, almost, already, even, just, nearly, merely, and always. Only slides out of place nine times out of ten. E. H. Weiss in his book 100 Writing Remedies suggests to place the slippery modifiers just before the terms they modify.
I only borrowed the pen. [I.e., I didn’t steal it.]
I borrowed only the pen. [I.e., not the pencil]
Examples of Misplaced Modifiers
Let’s take a look at these examples of awkwardly placed modifiers from the book Technical Communication in the Twenty-First Century:
Original Sentence: The lab apparatus was returned to the manufacturing plant where it had been developed five years earlier by parcel post.
Now examine the end portion of the above sentence. Does by parcel post tell about the manner in which the apparatus was shipped or developed? Since by parcel post is not close to what it modifies, the sentence is unclear, and readers may incorrectly interpret it.
Revised Sentence: The lab apparatus was returned by parcel post to the manufacturing plant where it had been developed five years earlier.
Original Sentence: Early in the meeting even the CEO couldn’t hear the speaker next to him.
Revised Sentence: Early in the meeting the CEO couldn’t hear even the speaker next to him.
Original Sentence: The technician, following an extensive investigation, was cleared of all charges of liability.
Revised Sentence: Following an extensive investigation, the technician was cleared of all charges of liability.
How a misplaced modifier can kill you!
Ashley Crowe posted a good story about how misplaced modifiers can cause death!
A woman hires a hitman to get rid of her husband. On the day before he was supposed to do the deed, he met with her in the park. She slipped him an envelope with the money in it and says “Kill the man in the Mercedes with an American flag.”
It puzzled the hitman why she wants him to use an American Flag to kill her husband. But he was hired to do a job and he decided he would do it no matter how absurd it seemed.
The next morning, he receives a call from the angry wife. She accuses him of not doing the job and he replies, “I don’t know what you are talking about! I dropped him and the flag I killed him with in the river, it’s not possible for him to be alive.”
She pauses and then asks, “Why would you kill him with an American Flag.”
“I thought it was weird too but, you said ‘Kill the man in the black Mercedes with an American Flag’ so, I snick up on the black Mercedes and choked the man inside with an American Flag.”
The woman sighs hen replies, “No, I didn’t want you to kill him with an American Flag! The car my husband drives has an American Flag across the back windshield!”
That is how a misplaced modifier can kill you!
What do you think about misplaced modifiers? Do you have a special trick to find and cure misplaced modifiers? Leave a comment and let me know.
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