How misplaced modifiers muck up your message

Adverbs and adjectives are wonderful helpers, except when they’re not. As in real estate, there are three key factors: location, location, location.

As a self-professed word nerd and grammar wonk, I am always looking for fun ways to teach my kids about grammar.

Our latest grammar lesson occurred when my son and I were listening to the novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

Me: So the song says, “I’m a one-eyed, one-horned flyin’ purple people eater.” Does that mean the monster is purple or that he eats purple people?
Him: It means he’s purple and he eats purple people.

The lesson here was about modifiers and why their location in a sentence is important.

When used correctly, modifiers add interest and depth to your writing. When modifiers are used incorrectly, the reader may not understand the details of the sentence.

A misplaced modifier occurs when a word or phrase is placed too far from the word it describes. Because of this separation, it’s not clear what is being described in the sentence.

Misplaced modifiers can usually be avoided by placing the modifying word or phrase appropriately close to the word it modifies.

Unclear: The patient was referred to a specialist with severe bipolar disorder.

Better: The patient with severe bipolar disorder was referred to a specialist.

Unclear: Dr. Smith treated the patients using antidepressants.

Better: Dr. Smith treated the patients with antidepressants.

Better: Dr. Smith treated the patients who were using antidepressants.

Unclear: The medication she prescribes frequently is not available.

Better: The medication she frequently prescribes is not available.

Better: The medication she prescribes is frequently not available.

Misplaced modifiers can produce unintentionally humorous sentences. Take a look at these examples from Grammar Girl:

  • “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.”
  • “Two sisters reunited after 18 years in checkout counter.”
  • “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” (OK, this one is intentionally humorous; it’s a Groucho Marx line from “Animal Crackers.”)
  • “We found the address he gave me without difficulty.”

There’s even a joke about a misplaced modifier walking into a bar.

Ragan readers, do you have any examples of misplaced modifiers to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.

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