5 Misplaced Phrases

By Mark Nichol

The flexibility of the English language is a blessing and a curse: It is commendable because it invites creativity, but the feature can also be a flaw, leading to confused context. In these five sentences, the faulty positioning of a phrase mars the meaning.

1. “Meanwhile, his supporters continue to physically assault and terrorize student protesters.”
When only the first of two parallel verbs is preceded by an adverb, that word is assumed to modify both verbs, but although it is possible to physically terrorize someone, that probably isn’t the writer’s meaning. To distinguish that the adverb modifies only the first verb — and because physical assault is more egregious than terrorizing, and ascending order is an effective syntactical scheme — the order in which the verbs appear should be inverted: “Meanwhile, his supporters continue to terrorize and physically assault student protesters.”

2. “For all its faults, the Bush administration regards the regime as an ally in the so-called war on terror.”
This sentence structure suggests that the faults are being attributed to the Bush administration, rather than to the regime. To correct this misstatement, relocate the interjection “for all its faults” to follow the reference to the latter government rather than the former: “The Bush administration regards the regime, for all its faults, as an ally in the so-called war on terror.”

3. “The battle lines had been drawn, but I waged my war against plagiarism, determined that I would not — could not — lose for my students’ sake.”
The placement of “for my students’ sake” at the end of the sentence, after lose, creates the impression that the idea is of the teacher losing for the sake of his or her students. The statement is clearer when the phrase is inserted parenthetically earlier in the sentence: “The battle lines had been drawn, but for my students’ sake, I waged my war against plagiarism, determined that I would not — could not — lose.”

4. “They whisper to each other across the room from their respective twin beds.”
The proximity of “across the room” to “from their respective twin beds” implies that the whisperers are located together across from where the beds are situated. To more clearly express that each whisperer is on or in his or her own bed, attach “across the room” to whisper, the verb the phrase modifies. “They whisper across the room to each other from their respective twin beds.”

5. “She picked Verrückt nach Mary off the shelf, the German-dubbed version of There’s Something About Mary, and held the package up.”
Here, the fact that shelf immediately precedes “the German-dubbed version of There’s Something About Mary” implies that they are in apposition, meaning that the phrase describes the shelf). However, it is an appositive describing the movie with the German title, so it should immediately follow the title: “She picked Verrückt nach Mary, the German-dubbed version of There’s Something About Mary, off the shelf and held the package up.”

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3 Responses to “5 Misplaced Phrases”

  • Bethaney

    Wow! I feel like I will never quit learning about the English language. Thanks for the tips.

  • Annette Hu

    I enjoy reading the daily writing tip as part of my daily ritual. Thank you!

  • Stephen

    I love these examples, especially number 2. I think there’s a missing comma in the corrected version of number 3, however. Shouldn’t the whole phrase “for my students’ sake” be set off by commas? There’s one at the end but not at the beginning.

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