3 Examples of Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

n each of the following examples, placement of a phrase obfuscates the sentence’s narrative flow. Discussion and a revision follow each sentence.

1. Ultimately, it isn’t the strongest or the smartest companies that survive and prosper, but those that successfully adapt to change.

Because “survive and prosper” applies to both the point and the counterpoint, it is best located at the end of the sentence; otherwise, the phrases ending in “that survive and prosper” and “that successfully adapt to change” appear to be distinct, whereas the second phrase, as part of the larger phrase beginning with but, is subordinate to the main clause: “Ultimately, it isn’t the strongest or the smartest companies, but those that successfully adapt to change, that survive and prosper.”

2. Anthony Ervin made history in the men’s 50-meter freestyle by becoming the oldest swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal at age thirty-five.

This sentence states that of all the individual Olympic gold medalists in swimming who were thirty-five, Ervin was the oldest, but to correctly associate the age with Ervin alone, rather than with all thirty-five-year-old swimmers, the phrase “at age thirty-five” must be adjacent to Ervin’s name, preferably as an introductory phrase: “At age thirty-five, Anthony Ervin made history in the men’s 50-meter freestyle by becoming the oldest swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal.’

3. Nevertheless, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists have been perpetuating the myth that the movie has an anti-Semitic message since at least 2008.

The sentence could be misread to suggest that the myth is that the movie acquired a particular message in a specific year. To clarify that the year refers simply to the advent of the notion itself and is not integral to the notion, it should be placed near the head of the sentence: “Nevertheless, since 2008, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists have been perpetuating the myth that the movie has an anti-Semitic message.”

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2 Responses to “3 Examples of Misplaced Modifiers”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “…but to correctly associate the age with Ervin alone, rather than with all thirty-five-year-old swimmers, the phrase “at age thirty-five” must be adjacent to Ervin’s name, preferably as an introductory phrase.”

    I agree completely! There is deep logic behind this, and I thank you.
    D.A.W.

  • Lynn

    On #1, another possibility is to word it this way:
    “Ultimately, the companies that survive and prosper are not the strongest or the smartest, but those that successfully adapt to change.”

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