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.

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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.”

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