3 More Examples of Misplaced Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Words and phrases that provide additional information to clarify relationships between people, places, or things should, for the sake of clarity, be carefully placed to aid readers in understanding a statement. In each of the following sentences, the writer has failed to achieve that goal. Discussions explain the problems, and revisions resolve them.

1. Mistakes can only be acted on and shared across the company when they are discussed, not hidden.

Listeners do not bat an eye when a speaker prematurely utters an errant only, but in writing, place it immediately before the pertinent verb or verb phrase: “Mistakes can be acted on and shared across the company only when they are discussed, not hidden.” (The original placement erroneously suggests that acting on and sharing mistakes is all that can be done in response to them; the revision correctly associates the word with discussion.)

2. The agency should work to protect both the environment and enable a growing economy.

Similarly, both is often incorrectly located, but this usage is more patently problematic than casual placement of only. When both follows a verb, what comes after should be parallel nouns or noun phrases, each of which pertains to the verb. Here, both refers to not only the verb protect (and the noun that follows) but also the verb enable (and the noun phrase that follows), so it must precede both verbs: “The agency should work to both protect the environment and enable a growing economy.”

3. At least two men were escorted out of the meeting by police officers, one of whom had to be carried.

The syntax of this sentence suggests that one of the police officers, rather than one of the two men, had to be carried. Readers will recognize the intent of the statement, but a writer should not make readers work to comprehend what is written; “two men” and “one of whom had to be carried” should be adjacent to each other: “At least two men, one of whom had to be carried, were escorted out of the meeting by police officers.” (An alternative, active revision is “Police officers escorted at least two men, one of whom had to be carried, from the meeting.”)

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