5 Examples of Misplaced Modifiers
You’ve heard that timing is everything. In writing, however, placement takes first place when it comes to conveying meaning. Consider these examples.
1. “So far, the book has only come out in Italian.”
It has only come out in Italian? It hasn’t done anything else in that language? No, it is only in Italian that it has come out. This revision says so clearly: “So far, the book has come out only in Italian.” (The placement of only within a sentence is the most common type of misplaced modifier. It’s forgivable in spoken English, but in writing, it’s best put in its place.)
2. “Then you’ll be able to survive just about anything that life throws at you with confidence and style.”
What, exactly, does life throw at you with confidence and style? Nothing. It’s you, not your life, that exhibits these traits: “Then you’ll be able to survive, with confidence and style, just about anything that life throws at you.”
3. “She broke ground as the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872.”
This sentence implies that the subject was the first woman to register as a presidential candidate that year. But the meaning is that in that particular year, she became the first such candidate in history. This revision communicates that point: “In 1872, she broke ground as the first woman to run for president of the United States.”
4. “She got a job with an organization that developed policy for youth and children while she was a political science major.”
The impression one gets from this sentence is that the organization carried out its mission only during the duration of the subject’s time at the university. But what it means to say is that she obtained her job with an organization that pursued that objective independently of her tenure, and that she was a student when she did so, as conveyed here: “While she was a political science major, she got a job with an organization that developed policy for youth and children.”
5. “Smith recently presented a paper at a conference titled ‘Averting Bloodshed: The Benefits of Community-Based Mediation Services.’”
To what does the title refer — the paper, or the conference? The proximity of conference to the title implies that the event was so named, but this revision reveals the truth: “Smith, at a recent conference, presented a paper titled ‘Averting Bloodshed: The Benefits of Community-Based Mediation Services.’”
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9 Responses to “5 Examples of Misplaced Modifiers”
@Joel T. – I can’t agree there. This is very much about the position of ‘only.’ The argument would have been just the same if it had said ‘The book only came out in Italian’ – the purists would still be protesting.
The normal position for adverbs of frequency, for example, ‘splits the verb’, i.e. is between the auxiliary and the main verb, and nobody complains about that – He’s always turning up late. She’ll often bring us presents. They would never say that to me!
This is an argument specific to ‘only’, as in Fowler’s example sentence ‘He only died yesterday’; no splitting of the verb there. Some people think that ‘only’ must sit next to the word it modifies, although the most common and natural position is before the (main) verb. That’s why Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has three pages dedicated to ‘only’. It’s all on Google Books, starting at Page 691.
@Adarsh Thampy, it’s understandable that you’d be confused about #1. The issue is actually that of the adverb splitting the verb, rather than that of the adverb’s placement making it unclear which (of the one) verb it is modifying.
That said, this isn’t a real issue. Splitting verbs, like the Oxford comma, is a matter of individual taste and of the particular style guidelines you subscribe to (Chicago, MLA, etc.).
But to try to illustrate why splitting a verb can be thought to be problematic: by placing “only” inside the verb, the sentence gives the appearance that “has come out” is really a verb, gerund, and adverb, respectively, rather than a single verb. As such, the sentence takes on the form of a list of actions (gerunds being verbs that take the role of nouns).
That’s a false concern, however. For that to work, “come” would have to be in the gerundial form, which it isn’t. Also, such a construction would put the verbs in the active voice, but inanimate objects, like books, require passive voice verbs. Because “come” isn’t a gerund and because the subject is inanimate, it doesn’t matter if the verb is split or not, we know that the various components must go together, and so the meaning remains perfectly clear.
Would this work for #5?:
“At a recent conference, Smith presented a paper titled ‘Averting Bloodshed: The Benefits of Community-Based Mediation Services.’”
Your correction sounds a bit choppy to me, but then, I’m not a native speaker, so I can’t tell for sure.
@Ken – Isn’t it natural that advertising should use standard idiomatic English. Who do you think advertisers want to appeal to more – ordinary people or language purists? While in edited work putting ‘only’ nearest to the word it modifies might possibly make sense, in spoken English between the subject and the verb is the natural position.
Fowler, for one, saw nothing wrong with early positioning of ‘only’ if its meaning was clear, and in the example sentence -“So far, the book has only come out in Italian”, what possible misinterpretation could be made? Books don’t do much else in Italian apart from ‘come out’.
I think #4 could have been handled a little better . . . the problem being that “while” isn’t always taken to mean “concurrently,” as intended in your rewrite, especially as the first word in the sentence. There’s no ambiguity with, “During the time she was a political science major . . . ”
Of course, “during the time” could also be substituted for “while” in the original example.
I see the misplaced “only” so often in print, especially advertising, that it drives me nuts. “You only have five days left.” “We only use the freshest ingredients.” “If you only have time to read one magazine, let it be ours.” Can’t something be done?
Wow, you have hit on one of my biggest pet peeves! When I’m copyediting, I always feel like I’m “untangling” a sentence when I find and correct these annoying little gems. Thanks for spreading the good word.
Example #1 is a bit confusing (for me). Could you please follow-up this post with a clearer explanation for using “only” in sentences.
“Then you’ll be able to survive, with confidence and style, just about anything that life throws at you.”
This does break the flow a bit, I think. What about a simple comma?
“Then you’ll be able to survive just about anything that life throws at you, with confidence and style.”