3 Cases of Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Modifying phrases are welcome additions to sentences that provide additional information, but when they are inserted awkwardly, they hinder meaning rather than enhance it. In the following sentences, the modifiers appear at the wrong point in the sentence; see discussions and revisions that clarify the intent of the informative phrases.

1. Smith told the man to close the doors while holding the weapon to his head.

This sentence implies that the man was instructed to hold a weapon to his head and close the doors, but the man had a gun to his head when he was told to open the doors, so that key information should precede, not trail, the description of the task he was given (and switching the noun and the pronoun identifying the other person provides further clarity): “While holding the weapon to the man’s head, Smith told him to close the doors.”

2. She was only with Jones for four months because he was abusive.

Technically, this sentence indicates that the woman remained with Jones for the sole reason that he was abusive, and she did so for four months. It could also be misread to imply that because of Jones’s abusive nature, the woman was with him and no one else for four months (though that reading is most likely if only follows Jones.) However, the intended meaning is that her time with him was minimal, so only should immediately precede the reference to the time frame: “She was with Jones for only four months, because he was abusive.” (Better yet, write, “Because Jones was abusive, she was with him for only four months.”)

3. As a young man, Jones recalls the 1945 parade that honored Smith as an event he will never forget.

Using “as a young man” to introduce the recollection implies that it occurred when Jones was a young man, although the tense form of recall is wrong. For an unambivalent reading, Place the parenthetical phrase “as a young man” after “Jones recalls”: “Jones recalls, as a young man, being at the 1945 parade that honored Smith as an event he will never forget.” Better yet, recast the sentence entirely: “Jones says he will never forget when he, as a young man, witnessed the 1945 parade honoring Smith.”

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3 Responses to “3 Cases of Misplaced Modifiers”

  • venqax

    Yes, rewrite #3 or it sounds like Smith is an event he will never forget. As in, “Remember when Smith happened?”

  • Thebluebird11

    LOL @venqax, that’s how it sounded!

  • Anne-Marie Shaffer

    Venqax, I thought for sure that part of the sentence would be rewritten too. “…Smith as an event…”? That is completely awkward.

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