3 Sentences with Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Phrases that provide additional information in a sentence are often haphazardly situated within that sentence in such a way that the reader might be confused about what the modifying phrase refers to, or at best must reread the sentence to confirm that he or she has comprehended the correct meaning. Here are three sentences that benefit from relocation of a modifying phrase.

1. After twenty-seven years of marriage, I can only imagine how shocking your wife’s revelation must have been for you.

Because the subject I immediately follows the modifying phrase “after twenty-seven years of marriage,” the erroneous implication is that the fact that the writer has been married to someone for that long enables him or her to imagine how shocking the revelation of the other person’s wife must have been for that person. (Here, only is an intensifier, making the meaning of the phrase “I can only imagine” akin to “I can well imagine,” rather than a diminisher, as in “I only have a few minutes to talk”—which should, technically, read, “I have only a few minutes to talk.”)

However, the point is that that the other person and his or her wife have been married for a long time, and because of that fact, the wife’s revelation is shocking. To make this point clear, the sentence should begin with the subject and continue to shocking (the adjective that is the key word, and thus the fulcrum, of the sentence) before the modifying phrase is inserted as a parenthetical: “I can only imagine how shocking, after twenty-seven years of marriage, your wife’s revelation must have been for you.”

2. The project could require another two billion dollars to finish construction and ensure safety, which is about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Because safety immediately precedes the final phrase of this sentence, the statement describes safety as being a certain proportion of the country’s gross domestic product—obviously an error, because common sense tells the reader that the phrase about the GDP refers to the dollar amount, not to an intangible quality. To unambiguously represent that connection, the parenthetical reference to the dollar amount should appear immediately after the figure: “The project could require another two billion dollars—about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product—to finish construction and ensure safety.”

3. Smith’s company is unusual because it doesn’t pay any of its workers in exchange for stock equity.

As written, this sentence suggests that Smith’s company is rare among businesses in that it doesn’t provide compensation to its employees with the understanding that the workers will offer his company stock equity in return; presumably, it has some other, unusual arrangement with the people who staff the company. This nonsensical impression is eliminated by changing the focus from what his company doesn’t do to what it does do and reversing the references to stock equity and pay, along with rewording the latter reference: “Smith’s company is unusual because it offers its workers stock equity in lieu of a salary.” (The modifying phrase “in lieu of a salary” could also be inserted parenthetically after because.)

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2 Responses to “3 Sentences with Misplaced Modifiers”

  • Tal Valante

    Ah, the wonders of a misplaced modifier. My favorite is still, “After rotting in the basement for three weeks, my brother threw out the oranges.” Poor brother!

    I like the subtlety of the samples you brought up here. A sentence that at first glance looks just fine is revealed as a grammatical disaster. Thanks for the read, Mark!

  • Curtis Manges

    Sorry, Mark, but your solution to that first one is awfully awkward. Here’s what I would have done:
    “After your twenty-seven years of marriage, I can only imagine how shocking your wife’s revelation must have been for you.”
    It flows as well as the original, and the added ‘your’ eliminates the ambiguity.

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