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Grammar Bite: Misplaced Modifiers

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In grammar, a modifier is a word or phrase that qualifies a noun or verb. Modifiers should be placed next to the words or phrases they modify. Simple enough, yes? Check out this example:

Nearly three months after his passing, WBUR’s Curt Nickisch wonders how Ted Kennedy’s shadow has impacted the race for his seat in the Senate.

Nearly three months after his passing is a modifier, but what is it modifying? Unfortunately, it’s modifying WBUR’s Curt Nickisch. Last I checked, Nickisch is alive and well. Nearly three months after his passing is meant to modify Ted Kennedy. This is a misplaced modifier, and it happens more frequently than you might imagine.

Oh sure, you say, misplaced modifiers happen, but my readers understand what I mean. After all, did anyone really think it was Curt Nickisch who had died and not Ted Kennedy? Fair enough. It’s sloppy writing, but it’s understandable so why correct it? Let’s look at another example:

They are editing a national newsletter for parents of teenagers based in Seattle. (The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 366)

Do you see the misplaced modifier? It may be hard to spot unless you know that the newsletter is based in Seattle, not the teenagers. Misplaced modifiers can cause you to say something you don’t mean. In this case, would it make a difference to your readers if your newsletter is only for Seattle families? You might lose a lot of readers that way. It’s always better to be careful and precise in your writing. Why risk losing your reader for something easy to fix? Let’s look at one more:

In the U.S., boys only seem to go for girl heroes when they are teamed up with male partners, as in the Power Rangers. (Garner’s Modern English Usage, 654)

According to this sentence, U.S. boys like girl heroes and no other. But that really doesn’t make a lot of sense with the rest of the sentence. Only is often misplaced because it can be an adjective or an adverb, so it can modify almost any word in a sentence. Be very careful with only; position it next to the word or words you want to modify.

Let’s see if we can fix these sentences:

  • Nearly three months after Ted Kennedy’s passing, WBUR’s Curt Nickisch wonders how the late Senator’s shadow has impacted the race for his seat.
  • They are editing a national newsletter, based in Seattle, for parents of teenagers.
  • In the U.S., boys seem to go for girl heroes only when they are teamed up with male partners, as in the Power Rangers.

In the first example, we want to be careful not to let nearly three months after his passing modify Ted Kennedy’s shadow. Kennedy died, not his shadow. If you would do something different, post it in the comments section below.

Think you’ve got it? Here’s quick quiz. In the following sentences, identify the misplaced modifier and fix the sentences:

  1. Although nearly completed, the analysts stopped working on the report to have dinner.
  2. Added to the raise and the a company car, Bob demanded a four-day work week.
  3. As a scientist, his lab is his home away from home.
  4. This novel is a haunting tale of deception, sexual domination, and betrayal by one of South America’s most important writers.
  5. You’d only need an apostrophe if you used a noun after the possessive.

How did you do? Send me your answers, and I’ll let you know! You can also get the answers here on Monday.

Quiz Sources

Answers to the Quiz

Highlight the numbers below to reveal the answers.

  1. Although the report was nearly finished, the analysts stopped working to have dinner.
  2. Bob demanded a four-day work week in addition to the raise and a company car.
  3. The lab is a scientist’s home away from home.
  4. This novel, by one of South America’s most important writers, is a haunting tale of deception, sexual domination, and betrayal.
  5. You’d need an apostrophe only if you used a noun after the possessive.

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