Mistakes mount with mysterious misplaced modifiers

Mistakes mount with mysterious misplaced modifiers

Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 9:22 pm
By: By Glenda Caudle

The Messenger 04.29.11

“Misplaced far too often, many writers have trouble with pesky modifiers in sentence construction.”
In truth, few writers are misplaced — despite the fact that some subscribers to The Messenger wish today’s column writer could be. But a mental image of journalists magically transported to mysterious realms on a frequent schedule is precisely what the introductory sentence suggests to a discerning reader.
Unfortunately, modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, phrases and clauses that describe, limit or qualify something) are very often misplaced, and that is the information this column’s first sentence is actually attempting to convey. As a general rule, modifiers should be placed as close to the thing they modify as possible to avoid problems. When a careless arrangement of these handy little descriptives takes place, whether in speech or in written communication, some very unusual ideas begin to emerge in the mind of the listener or reader.
Consider the following examples:
• “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.”
Because the phrase “on the back of an envelope” appears closest to “while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg,” it is natural to assume this famous man’s gadding about took place on an item of stationery. Common sense tells us such a thing is not possible, but the writer could have avoided the vision of the lanky, bearded president perched on a swirling envelope — whisked by wind currents from one location to another — if he had simply moved the misplaced modifier around and written: “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg.” A second option would be to pluck out the phrase “while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg,” move it to the beginning of the sentence, add a comma and then go on with the thought.
• “She dressed for her blind date in a frilly pink mini-dress and rhinestone drop earrings.”
It is possible this poor woman’s companion for the evening wound up claiming the place of honor in one of those hilarious e-mails featuring photos of outlandishly attired shoppers at a popular national discount department store. It is more likely, however, that the sentence should have read, “She dressed in a frilly pink mini-dress and rhinestone drop earrings for her blind date.” Although, come to think of it, this couple might still have ended up in the WallyWorld photo shoot.
• “Hopping from one lily pad to another, I caught sight of the granddaddy of all frogs.”
Amazing, it is not, that one should find the time to observe ancient amphibians while undertaking a water ballet-inspired journey across the pond. Or maybe the whole adventure was just an ill-conceived method of toadying up to the giant jumper. Or, perhaps, it’s simply time to bounce that initial modifier from the front of the sentence to the back, where it truly belongs. Read it in revised form and give me your opinion: “I caught sight of the granddaddy of all frogs hopping from one lily pad to another.”
• “Then we got a quick glimpse of Queen Victoria in full ceremonial regalia, cycling past the palace on the last leg of the race.”
Trust me, England’s longest reigning monarch did not achieve that status by engaging in bicycle races. In fact, she would most likely have disdained bicycles as unsuitable for Victorian-age ladies to pedal. But that might not have been enough to put a halt to sporting fun on the two-wheelers. So, conceivably, the sentence could read, with complete truth, “Then, cycling past the palace on the last leg of the race, we got a quick glimpse of the queen in full ceremonial regalia.”
• “The company’s vice president introduced the newest firearm for police made of lightweight plastic.”
The law enforcement officers I know are all made of much sturdier stuff, but I can think of a few politicians for whom the description is entirely appropriate. Let’s keep on the right side of the law by shifting the modifier “made of lightweight plastic” a little closer to the word it actually describes — firearm. Now the sentence reads (in all truthfulness and without the possibility of offending those who stand between us and the hard, cold world of criminals), “The company’s vice president introduced the newest lightweight plastic firearm made for police.”
Examples abound, both absurd and hysterical. Soon-er or later, you’ll find one in even the most carefully edited and pretentious material. And sooner or later, you’ll utter one of your own. Trust me. Even after years of writing and proofreading, misplaced modifiers still pop up in my work.
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Editor’s note: Don’t bother calling or e-mailing about the last sentence. It was a test. Just give yourself a pat on the back if you passed. And if you have no idea what was wrong with the sentence or even what this column was about, call your local school system and see if they have a desk your size in fourth grade.
Glenda Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.

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