Misplaced Modifiers Mix Meanings
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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