The Fateful Consequences of Misplaced Modifiers

This cautionary tale from Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day (April 24) shows the benefits of keeping modifying and modified words together.

Garner’s book Modern American Usage is a great reference work for writers and editors, and provides entries on how words and phrases are most commonly used, quoting from a wide variety of sources — books, newspapers, magazines, etc.  And gives a lot of grammar and style advice along the way.

You can sign up to receive a daily excerpt from the book (like the one below) here – check the box under “Daily & Weekly Newsletters.”

Today: Misplaced Modifiers.

When modifying words are separated from the words they modify, readers have a hard time processing the information. Indeed, they are likely to attach the modifying language first to a nearby word or phrase — e.g.:

o “The 39-year-old San Francisco artist has beaten the odds against him by living — no, thriving — with the virus that causes AIDS for 14 years.” Christine Gorman, “Are Some People Immune to AIDS?” Time, 22 Mar. 1993, at 49. (Does the virus cause AIDS for 14 years?)

o “Both died in an apartment Dr. Kevorkian was leasing after inhaling carbon monoxide.” “Kevorkian Victory: 3d Judge Says Suicide Law Is Unconstitutional,” N.Y. Times, 28 Jan. 1994, at A9. (This word order has Dr. Kevorkian inhaling carbon monoxide and then leasing an apartment.)

o “On November 6, 1908, most historians agree that either a company of Bolivian cavalry, or four local police officers from el pueblo de la San Vicente, or a herd of irate burros, shot Butch [Cassidy] and the [Sundance] Kid to death when they were discovered to be in possession of a stolen mule.” J. Lee Butts, Texas Bad Girls 112 (2001). (This seems to say that the historians reached an agreement on November 6, 1908, not that they agree about the events of that date. A possible rewrite: Most historians agree that on November 6, 1908 . . . .)

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2 thoughts on “The Fateful Consequences of Misplaced Modifiers

  1. Last week, I was trying to teach misplaced modifiers lto my college freshmen. I am surpirsed at how many people just do not understand it! They assume the reader will figure it out.

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