To keep communication clear, avoid misplaced modifiers

Botched syntax isn’t just a matter of awkward phrasing; it can deliver an unintended—even incorrect—message. Here’s how to recognize and remedy those errant qualifiers.

Misplaced modifiers abound in writing.

These words or phrases add information to a sentence’s main idea, but their placement creates confusing or awkward syntax.

The solution is often simply relocating the modifier as a subordinate clause that precedes the main clause:

1. A “Cosby Show actress claims the comedian raped her in a new lawsuit.

As written, the sentence suggests that the rape occurred in a lawsuit. In truth, the wording of the lawsuit alleges that the rape occurred, so the sentence should begin with that context:

“In a new lawsuit, a ‘Cosby Show’ actress claims the comedian raped her.”

Another option is to set off, with commas or parentheses, “in a new lawsuit” between the subject, “A ‘Cosby Show” actress,” and the predicate, “claims the comedian raped her.” (The parenthetical can also follow the verb; the addition of “that” helps for clarity.)

“A ‘Cosby Show’ actress, in a new lawsuit, claims the comedian raped her.”

“A ‘Cosby Show’ actress claims (in a new lawsuit) that the comedian raped her.”

2. The attorney said he was confident that justice would be served as he stood on the courthouse steps.

Just as in the first example, this sentence features a distracting misstatement. The attorney did not claim that during the time he was standing on the courthouse steps, justice would be served, but that’s what the sentence implies.

To clarify that the reference to the courthouse steps is tangential to his pronouncement, it should be moved to the beginning of the sentence as a subordinate clause:

“As he stood on the courthouse steps, the attorney said he was confident that justice would be served.”

As in the previous example, the modifier can be inserted in the middle of the sentence, either before or after said.

3. The property belonged to Lance Benson twice, who lost the land in a divorce settlement and then bought it back in 2012.

The antecedent, or prior reference, to who—the name Lance Benson—must appear immediately before the pronoun, with no intervening words, so twice must be relocated:

“The property twice belonged to Lance Benson, who lost the land in a divorce settlement and then bought it back in 2012.”

Twice could also begin the sentence, but the statement flows more smoothly when it immediately precedes the verb that it modifies: belonged.

4. North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb to widespread skepticism.

This sentence suggests that widespread skepticism was an intended result of the bomb test; it appears as if a verb such as garner is missing from before “widespread skepticism.”

To explicitly note that the skepticism was independent of the bomb test, the result should be introduced as a subordinate clause before the main clause:

“To widespread skepticism, North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb.”

(Again, the modifier can be inserted before or after the verb instead.)

Better yet, however, the result could be described with a verb inserted before it and the entire phrase set off from the main clause by a comma:

“North Korea’s government says its military tested a bomb, prompting widespread skepticism.”

5. The rocks appeared to be the size of small cars in pictures posted by the National Park Service.

This sentence, as written, seems to compare the size of the rocks to the size of specific small cars that are featured in National Park Service photographs.

We must clarify that the photos show rocks the size of small cars, rather than depicting small cars themselves. To that end, the phrase describing the photos should be an introductory subordinate clause:

“In pictures posted by the National Park Service, the rocks appeared to be the size of small cars.”

A version of this article originally appeared on the Daily Writing Tips website.

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