Are you misplacing modifiers? 10 examples and their easy fixes

Situating a participle or locating a clarifying phrase within a sentence can be tricky, even for seasoned communicators. To avoid prompting confusion—or, worse, derision—follow these tips.

Misplaced_Modifier_Fixes

A misplaced modifier can muddle a sentence’s overall meaning.

It’s the syntactical error of putting supplemental information—a single word or a lengthy phrase—in the wrong spot within a sentence.

Such errors are common among even professional writers, as well as those for whom writing is not a primary responsibility.

It’s therefore easy to find multiple examples during even casual reading of news articles.

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The examples below are followed by discussion of the error and one or more revisions:

1. Smith said his company won’t tolerate hate groups during his congressional testimony earlier this week.

The implication is that the company will limit its intolerance to the duration of the session in which he gives testimony. Here, the sentence is rephrased to clarify that the intolerance is ongoing:

Smith said during his congressional testimony earlier this week that his company won’t tolerate hate groups.

2. That’s how many would be needed to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes, assuming all Democrats vote “yes,” the margin required for a veto override.

The syntax implies that the assumed Democratic-bloc vote is the margin, but the 288 votes (against the remaining votes) is the margin, so the phrase “assuming all Democrats vote ‘yes’” should be isolated as a parenthetical: “That’s how many would be needed to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes—assuming all Democrats vote ‘yes’—the margin required for a veto override.” However, because dashes convey emphasis, this method seems obtrusive, so placing it in parentheses, which suggest subordination of the additional information, is better:

That’s how many would be needed to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes (assuming all Democrats vote “yes”), the margin required for a veto override.

That approach, however, is still distracting. Best yet, the parenthetical phrase can be moved to an earlier position in the sentence:

That’s how many would be needed, assuming all Democrats vote “yes,” to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes, the margin required for a veto override.

3. Lessons learned from preparation of the previous year’s statements should be addressed the following year (e.g., any issues encountered in applying new policies).

The recommended action “should be addressed the following year” is the point of the sentence, so it should appear at the end, following the parenthesis:

Lessons learned from preparation of the previous year’s statements (e.g., any issues encountered in applying new policies) should be addressed the following year.

4. That is where a technology committee can be useful—a smaller, focused board group working with management on long-term digital and innovation strategy.

The portion of the sentence following the dash details what is meant by “technology committee,” so it should immediately follow that term:

That is where a technology committee—a smaller, focused board group working with management on long-term digital and innovation strategy—can be useful.

5. An attack at the synagogue left eleven people dead, many of them elderly.

“Many of them elderly,” as a phrase modifying people, should immediately follow that word, which also places the sentence’s key word, dead, at the end of the sentence, where it has the most impact:

An attack at the synagogue left eleven people, many of them elderly, dead.

Another option:

An attack at the synagogue killed eleven people, many of them elderly.

6. Information on each of these activities is available online, which will help will cultivate real-world experience building, hunting, and analyzing.

The activities themselves, rather than the fact that information on each of them is available online, will be helpful in the cultivation of real-world experience, so the dependent clause, which describes that benefit, should immediately follow activities, not online:

Information on each of these activities, which will help will cultivate real-world experience building, hunting, and analyzing, is available online.

7. Such systems can only screen those messages that contain a payment instruction.

Misplacement of only in a sentence is rampant, especially in conversation; in formal writing, the word should follow the verb it modifies. In this sentence, the syntax implies that the systems can screen but can do nothing else; the meaning is that they can screen a certain category of messages but no others, as reflected in this revision:

Such systems can screen only those messages that contain a payment instruction.

8. Jones said he assumes Smith erased the messages on his phone, not a member of Smith’s staff, and he doesn’t know whether the texts can be recovered.

The placement of the parenthetical here implies that the messages were erased and a person was not erased, but the point of the sentence is that Smith, rather than a member of his staff, did the erasing, as clarified here:

Jones said he assumes Smith, not a member of Smith’s staff, erased the messages on his phone, and he doesn’t know whether the texts can be recovered.

9. Congress controls federal spending, not the president.

This sentence implies that “federal spending” and “the president” are counterpoints (suggesting that Congress controls federal spending, but it doesn’t control the president); the following revision clarifies that it is Congress and “the president” that are parallel:

Congress, not the president, controls federal spending.

10. We had known since 1866 that solid objects can reflect radio waves, thanks to German physicist Heinrich Hertz.

The implication here is that we have Hertz to thank for the fact that solid objects can reflect radio waves. However, he is responsible not for the phenomenon, but for our awareness of it. The parenthetical can be reinserted into the sentence in any one of several places, but whatever position it takes, the sentence should end with the key information that solid objects can reflect radio waves:

We had known since 1866, thanks to German physicist Heinrich Hertz, that solid objects can reflect radio waves.

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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