A while ago (yes, I know, I’m too sporadic about these these days), I wrote about what a dangling modifier was and why they are bad
. This is somewhat related, but today I’m talking about just misplaced modifiers. There’s a really easy rule of thumb for modifiers: Modifiers should always point clearly to the words they modify. Keep related words together.
Now, you’d think that would be simple, right? Hah. movies_michelle
told me recently about an annoying woman who, though English is her first language, posts incomprehensible things that no one understands the meaning of — because she puts modifying words in the wrong places. Not only can you confuse and annoy readers by misusing modifiers, but you can entirely change the meaning of your statement if you use them incorrectly. Most of the time, you don’t want to do this. Because then it becomes a bit like Alice in Wonderland,
with that conversation between the Mad Hatter and Alice. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
First of all, the simplest part is to remember that limiting modifiers should go in front of the words they modify. These are words such as only, even, almost, all, nearly, not,
. They should come in front of your verb only
if they modify the verb (Harmony couldn’t even walk
and chew gum). If they limit the meaning of a different word in the sentence, then put the darn modifier in front of that
word. It sounds fussy, especially when you talk about the words only or even, which can get copyeditors into a lather at times. Sure, people can usually understand your meaning if only is placed farther away from the word it modifies, but sometimes, they may not, or they may come away with the wrong idea. Some examples:
the aliens, leaving the villagers alive.
Sonny fired off two clips, but didn’t
one bad guy.
If I could
get Angel to just
stop brooding for one moment…
You can see here that these are not going to kill a sentence if the modifiers come at those places in the sentences. But the meaning becomes a little clearer, the writing becomes a tad more precise, when you put the modifiers closer to the words they modify. Jack really isn’t only shooting, he’s trying to shoot only aliens. This becomes a big problem with words like not, which is often misplaced, and can seriously cause confusion when you’re using it with words like all or any. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but Michelle’s example was a message from this woman saying something like “all the rooms are not available to students.” This can be frustratingly incomprehensible because it’s saying that no rooms, absolutely none, are available to students. Is that what she meant, or did she mean that the rooms are not available to all students (meaning, just some of them who fit a certain criteria), or not all of the rooms, but some of them, are available to students? So the difference can look like this:All
vampires are not
hypnotic and sexy.Not all
vampires are hypnotic and sexy.
The original means that no vampires are hypnotic and sexy (as if!), but what the writer probably means is that not all of them are hypnotic and sexy, but some of them certainly are. In the first set of misplaced modifiers a couple paragraphs above, most people would be able to figure out what you meant. But once you throw not into the mix, or words like that, you can drastically alter how readers perceive things. I had a friend once who told me about his friend, who was a teenage mother. And I said, she's our age?! Because we were like 13 or something. And he said, yeah, and so her mom is really young. And I asked, do you mean she's the mother of a teenager, then? Your friend's mother is the mother of a teenager, not that your friend is a teenage mother. He just looked at me and said, well, yeah -- why is that hard to get? Conversations with him were always like this. So watch out for those modifiers!
The dangling modifiers I talked about a few months ago always involve phrases. You can still misplace modifying phrases without having them necessarily meet the qualifications of a dangler, but I think that column gives you a good overview. The main thing with phrases and clauses is that you want to make it obvious for your reader what you’re trying to modify — don’t separate them out over long distances, unless you’re a really gifted writer and you know how to do this (leave it to the professionals!), and don’t shove them in awkward spots without thinking carefully how it might read.
Doyle and Bodie drove to the building where Bodie had been shot by an IRA gunman in a silver Ford Capri.
Here, you can leave people scratching their heads about why they need to know the gunman was in a silver Ford Capri, when in fact you meant that this was the car Bodie and Doyle were driving. Rather than tear asunder your modifying phrase and the words you want to modify, keep them in wedded bliss, close together, and recast: Doyle and Bodie drove their silver Ford Capri to the building where Bodie had once been shot by an IRA gunman. Plus, you get rid of unintentionally funny sentences like I mentioned in that dangler post; not being mocked is always a good thing, if you ask me. Sometimes sentences turn out just plain ambiguous, and while that’s not necessarily mockage material, if you do it enough, you can turn readers away from your story, because they’re having to work too hard:
The townspeople Jeremiah and Kurdy stayed with often asked them about their sex lives.
Does this mean that the townspeople regularly asked them about their sex lives, or that they frequently stayed with the same people, who asked them rude questions? If the former, you’d want that “often” up in front of stayed, or if the latter, then you’d want to slap that “often” in another place, possibly even at the end of the sentence (or recast, to say something like “asked them frequently about…”
And here we get into one of those myths I promised, way back when, to smash into pulp: Don’t split infinitives. What this means is that we grew up with a stupid instruction that we’re not supposed to put a modifier between an infinitive verb’s two parts; an infinitive is one of those verbs with to
in front of it. To boldly go
is perhaps the best-known split infinitive in the world. Now, if it’s really truly awkward to split the infinitive, then don’t, but there is no logical, defining reason not to do it — it’s a myth, a silly one at that, and not based on any logical reasoning about the way English works. As always, let clarity be your guide: if it sounds clearer to you not to split the infinitive, then don’t, but if it comes out sounding weird or awkward or not how people talk, then forget it. To go boldly where no man has gone before
sounds just as fine as To boldly go where no man has gone before,
so I say, split, baby, split. If you are going for very formal writing such as academic prose (which, to me, is almost an oxymoron — I think academic writing is just gobbledegook), then you probably want to hew to the not splitting rule, but otherwise, this how folks talk, you know?
Awkward would be this:
Technicians should try to if possible avoid hitting the stargate portal activation switch when the janitorial service is cleaning it.
Less awkward and non-splitting would be:
If possible, technicians should try to avoid hitting the stargate portal activation switch when the janitorial service is cleaning it.
To boldly split infinitives where none have been split before — fine by me.