5 More Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

The syntax of the English language is fairly flexible, but one rigid rule is that a word or phrase that modifies a word or a phrase should be positioned so that its interrelationship with the target component is clear. These five sentences illustrate the importance of this rule.

1. “People watched a television broadcast reporting on North Korea’s nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday.”
The sentence structure suggests that the nuclear test was conducted at a South Korean railway station. Rearrange the phrasing so that the modifying phrase about the location of the observation is adjacent to the description of the observation: “People at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, watched a television broadcast reporting on North Korea’s nuclear test on Tuesday.”

2. “She adopted the term biracial after hearing it in discussions about being a person of mixed-race origin while an undergrad at Wellesley College.”
This sentence gives the reader the impression that discussions were about temporary ethnic designation — about being a person of mixed-race origin only during one’s college years. But it was the subject’s self-designation, not her ethnicity, that changed during her college years, as this revision indicates: “While she was an undergrad at Wellesley College, she adopted the term biracial after hearing it in discussions about being a person of mixed-race origin.”

3. “According to historical records, he emancipated the slaves he owned in his will.”
The modifying phrase “in his will,” as appended to “the slaves he owned,” implies that the slaves he freed were those located in his will, which implies that other slaves not contained therein were not necessarily freed. To eliminate ambiguity, insert the modifying phrase as a parenthetical following the introductory phrase: “According to historical records, in his will, he emancipated the slaves he owned.”

4. “It’s about a guy whose presidency is going up in flames named George W. Bush.”
This syntax creates the impression that the flames are named George W. Bush. The phrase “named George W. Bush” does modify “guy whose presidency is going up in flames,” but for the sake of clarity, insert the phrase after guy and before the rest of the phrase, which itself modifies guy: “It’s about a guy named George W. Bush whose presidency is going up in flames.”

5. “That cycle can only be corrected when we come to value the vital role of private preserves.”
Incorrect location of only in a sentence is the most common type of misplacement of a modifier. Comprehension of a sentence’s meaning is rarely compromised by this error, but only should be put where it belongs. In this case, it modifies corrected, not can, so it should follow corrected: “That cycle can be corrected only when we come to value the vital role of private preserves.”

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5 Responses to “5 More Misplaced Modifiers”

  • Curtis

    Mark,
    I have a problem with #5. I think people are being too picky about this placement of ‘only’ — you said it yourself: “Comprehension of a sentence’s meaning is rarely compromised by this error . . . ” The reason for this is that the sample sentence can be reconfigured into a logic statement, and the conditions of that statement do not change with the placement of ‘only.’

    I’m rusty at this, but an equivalent statement might be, “[our value of the role] effects [cycle correction] to the exclusion of all other causes.”
    I hope someone will come along and do a better job at this, but you see what I mean — the word ‘only’ needn’t even appear in this statement, and when it does, its placement has no effect on its job as a term of exclusivity. The logic is undamaged; the meaning of the statement is perfectly clear. Since clarity isn’t diminished, the “error” doesn’t register in the reader’s brain as an error at all.

    Of course, there are a lot of possible ways in which ‘only’ can be misused and cause confusion. I just don’t think this example was the best one to illustrate that. Perhaps you could provide another.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, this is an excellent, excellent article that addresses a very real problem. People who should know better commit these errors all the time. By this I mean I mean the writers for documentaries on TV and on DVDs, newswriters for major TV networks, writers of TV commercials, professional journalists, etc. Also, it seems that narrators just recite whatever they are presented in scripts, and they seldom complain to their directors, “This does not make sense,” and then demand that the script be corrected. In other words, they say shameful things, but they do not feel any shame. They just take their money and move on.

    Sometimes in other places, I complain about lousy English found in news articles, etc., either in print or on the Internet. Then I often have people griping to me about what I wrote. I have to write back something like, “I am not complaining about John Smith the private citizen – who can write as he pleases – but rather about Mike Jones, the so-called professional journalist who is being paid for what he does. When you are being paid to do something, you have an obligation to do it right.”
    Many people still do not “get it” at this point. So, I write something like “Your car need repairs, or your personal computer. So you take it to the repair shop, and you PAY for the problems to be corrected. You have a sincere expectation that the work will be done right.” Then, “You go to a surgeon to have an operation, such as having your appendix taken out. You expect the surgeon to do the surgery right for many reasons, including that he or she is being PAID to do what he does.”

    Then, there are people who still do not “get it”. They even ask, “What does this have to do with writing?” Well, what it has to do is that for any job that you accept, and that you are being paid for, you have an obligation to DO IT RIGHT.

    If you are a sheer amateur, I guess that you have the freedom to horse around at it, if you want to. Well, I do not want any amateurs working on my PC or taking our my appendix!
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Curtis that the sentence in #5 could be corrected without the use of the word “only”.
    However, he has simply replaced “only” by the long phrase “to the exclusion of all other…”, which is synonymous with “only” but it is six words long. Clearly, this is not a good solution either: it meets the very definition of “wordiness”.

    Now is a good time for a trip to the thesaurus to look up some synonyms (I had thought of “solely” already.) You have a thesaurus at your fingertips in http://www.thesaurus.com .
    {unique, uniquely, exclusively, lone, just, only if, plainly}
    There are many other listed – with various shades of meaning. I have also not insured that all of the words in my set are adverbs. I will leave that to you.
    Also, note that I am using “unique” with its genuine meaning of “one and only”, and not in its all-to-common use as {outstanding, excellent, amazing, fantastic}. That is something that came from British English, too, and I am an American, and many of us tend to write and speak more precisely.
    Note that “unique” has a root in common with {unicycle, unicorn, unicameral (in government), uniform (the adjective), unijunction (in electronics engineering), unilateral, unimodal (in mathematics), unipurpose, unit, Universe, Univac, and ONE}. All of these have the concept of “one and only”, and furthermore “uni” and “mono” mean the same thing. I will leave it up to you to look up the roots, but my best guess is that one of these came from Greek and the other came from Latin.

    A unicorn has one horn. Nebraska is the only state in the United States that has a unicameral legislature. A uniform layer of sand, such as underground, has all of its grains about the same size, and it has no holes or rocks in it. A unilateral action is an act by just one government or country, such as “a unilateral act by the Federal Republic of Germany”. Of course, a unit is a one-and-only object, such as a dollar bill with it unique serial number printed on it. The Universe contains everything, and in probability and statistics, the universal set contains everything that is under consideration – in one set. The original Univac computer was intended to be one computer that could do anything that a digital computer could do. The Univac corporation was intended to be one company that did everything concerning computers – all in one place. Of course, it never worked out to be that way, and we have scores of computer companies. Isaac Asimov joked that “Univac” meant “one vacuum tube”, and hence he wrote stories about a very advanced computer called “Multivac”, which obviously had multiple vacuum tube. (Eventually, it had more than anyone could count, and parts of Multivac were located in hyperspace.)

    The German word for unicorn is “Einhorn”, and that means precisely: “one horn”. The German prefix “ein” means “one”.
    D.A.w.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To recast this sentence for clarity: “That cycle can only be corrected when we come to value the vital role of private preserves,” I suggest this rewriting:

    “Only when we come to value the vital role of private preserves can that cycle be completed.”

    Holy cow! Turning the sentence around clarifies everything, and it places “only” in the great positions of only being able to modify what what it really does modify, which is the adverbial clause “when we come to value the vital role of private preserves”.

    The idea that “only” modifies “corrected” is a fallacious one.
    PLEASE EDIT THIS ARTICLE AND CHANGE THAT. That is a red herring.
    Note that adverbs can modify 1) verbs, 2) adjectives, and 3) adverbs.
    Category #2 includes adjectival phrases and clauses, and
    Category #3 includes adverbial phrases and clauses.

    My mother was an excellent high school English teacher, and when my father was writing his dissertation for his doctorate in education in the mid-1960s, Mother proofread everything several time, and she made lots of suggstions and corrections in the writing. (The subject matter was entirely the responsibility of my father.)

    Sometimes, my Dad commented, “All your Mother did was was to turn the sentence around backwards, and it makes perfect sense now.” Yes, he did, and I learned something from this.

    In sentences, the order of the subjects, verbs, direct objects, and subordinate clauses makes a lot of difference in the meaning and clarity.
    In this sentence, it is important to realize that is contains a long adverbial clause because otherwise, you will not understand its structure.

    Nowadays, so many people say, “Sentence structure? WTF?”
    In another column, I commented that sentences often have a mathematical structure – but some British buffoon could not wait to jump in and state: “Language does not have anything to do with mathematics.”

    Just as soon as he did that, I told everyone about the writings of the ENGLISH mathematician, philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell and how he used used language to illustrate point in math & logic, and vice-versa.
    His most famous one is about a hypothetical isolated village in English where none of the men wear beards, and the rule is that they either shave themselves, or they are shaved by the barber, but not both.
    So, who shaves the barber?
    1. He cannot shave himself because then he would be shaved by the barber.
    2. He cannot he shaved by the barber because then he would be shaving himself.
    3. He cannot grow a beard, because that is forbidden.
    4. He cannot get a shave from his brother, father, wife, or friend, because those are all forbidden, too.

    This is NOT a puzzle about shaving, barbers, and beards, but rather it is a direct parallel with an important point in mathematical logic.
    The point is that there will always be an unanswerable question or a contradiction in any system similar to this.

    If you do not believe that there is a close connection between mathematics and language, then your are really fooling yourself.
    D.A.A.

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: I guess the barber has to use a scissors LOL…
    OK please don’t go off on me about this…

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