Misplaced Modifiers Mix Meanings

By Mark Nichol

Scrambled sentence structure can lead to humorous or at least head-shaking imagery that readers will stumble on. Be alert in your writing for infelicitous misplacement of meaning:

1. “Kangaroo babies are the size of a lima bean at birth.”

But we’re not told how big a lima bean is at birth. Oh — perhaps it means this: “At birth, kangaroo babies are the size of a lima bean.”

2. “A famous athlete in the ancient Olympics named Milo of Kroton could break a string tied around his head with his bulging forehead veins.”

OK, wait, let me get this straight: Milo of Kroton tied a string around his head with his bulging forehead veins? Why not just tie the string to, um, the string? Milo evidently wasn’t using his head after all: “In the ancient Olympics, a famous athlete named Milo of Kroton could, with his bulging forehead veins, break a string tied around his head.” (It was also unclear whether the athlete or the games were called Milo of Kroton.)

3. “The first company to pioneer the idea of extended stay in 1975 was started by an apartment developer.”

A year-specific long-term residence hotel? What an intriguing business model! Which entrepreneurial insight did they have for 1976? (And first and pioneer are redundant.): “The company, which pioneered the idea of extended stay, was started by an apartment developer in 1975.” (“In 1975, an apartment developer started the company, which pioneered the idea of extended stay” is also correct and is also more active, but the context may prefer passive construction.)

4. “Mail was delivered by the Pony Express in the Wild West, a system in which riders rode to checkpoints, got a new horse, and rode on.”

I’ve never heard the Wild West described as a system: The writer meant, “Mail was delivered in the Wild West by the Pony Express, a system in which riders rode to checkpoints, got a new horse, and rode on.”

5. “Based on a true story, divers are left behind to float in the open seas in Open Water.”

The divers are not based on a true story; a true story inspired the movie: “In Open Water, based on a true story, two divers are left behind to float in the ocean.”

6. “The president says valor and sacrifice in the armed forces are no longer defined by sexual orientation at historic signing.”

What does sexual orientation at a historic signing have to do with valor and sacrifice?: Nothing. The sentence should read, “At a historic signing, the president says valor and sacrifice in the armed forces are no longer defined by sexual orientation.”

7. “If you learn to laugh with, and at, your family, you’ll be able to survive just about anything that life throws at you with confidence and style.”

Why let your life throw things, much less throw things with confidence and style?: “If you learn to laugh with (and at) your family, you’ll be able to survive, with confidence and style, just about anything that life throws at you.” (I also placed “and at” in parentheses to break up a string of commas that would, unchecked, have flattened the sentence.)

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5 Responses to “Misplaced Modifiers Mix Meanings”

  • Mark Harai

    What’s amazing here is how little modifications can completely change what you’re trying to communicate.

    For someone who is not a writer, becoming one seems almost impossible. When you write something that should be easy to communicate and you thought was well written – then submit it to someone who knows how to write properly and they make some simple edits, it makes you feel pretty hopeless.

    I’m sure you could shred the above paragraph!

    Oh well, I’m hoping practice makes perfect in my case, otherwise there will be no hope for me!

    Cheers Mark!

  • Mark Nichol

    Mark:

    The issue you bring up is one of the most important things to impress on people new to professional writing: Everybody gets edited. Everybody. The names on best seller lists, the authors on Oprah’s and Jon Stewart’s shows, the icons of modern literature and nonfiction — and (ahem) editors who also write (though not, usually, when they blog). Writing and editing are two inseparable sides of the coin.

  • Mark Harai

    Thanks for being nice : )

  • Kathryn

    Mark Harai: There’s probably something you know how to do very well–think about how much time and work it took to get to that level. We tend to think writing should be different because, after all, it is just writing down speech, and we all know how to speak, right? But written language differs from spoken language–and learning how to make the differences work for, rather than against, you does take time and perseverance.

  • Mark Harai

    LOL – thanks Kathryn and prepared to buckle down and learn : )

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