5 More Misplaced Modifiers
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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