Misplaced modifiers are funny—except when you write them and become the object of derision at worst and gentle teasing at best.
Here are a few examples from the book I used in my business writing seminars, The Bare Essentials (Norton, Green, Barale):
Swimming isn’t a good idea if cold or polluted. (Who or what is cold or polluted?)
I learned about Joan’s having a baby in last week’s letter. (That must have been a tight squeeze.)
I saw the Queen and her entourage arrive through a plate glass window. (Ouch!)
At the age of five, the barber cut Jamie’s hair, which curled to his shoulders nearly for the first time. (Such a precocious barber. And did Jamie’s hair curl to his shoulders for the first time? What did happen for the first time?)
Here’s the rule about misplaced modifiers: Put the modifier right next to the word it gives information about.
I had no idea. Of course, I knew the phrase “the whole shebang,” meaning the totality of an entity. But I never knew a shebang was a specific thing until the other night when I was watching a documentary about a group of archeologists excavating the Civil War site of Ft. Lawton, in Georgia. Those archeologists had to spend some nights on the site and set up their individual shebangs (small and uncomfortable). A shebang is a rustic shelter or primitive hut. Did you know that? Neither did I until I watched this somewhat tedious documentary. But I learned something because I watched the whole shebang.
Apparently, Steve Coogan has never seen himself as a paragon of good writing, either.
Have you ever heard another person say or write something similar to the following sentence? I myself personally am opposed to the senator’s proposal.
I myself personally find that sentence exceedingly painful. It contains a triple redundancy. Get rid of the clutter. Say what you mean. Get in, get out.
Personal and its relative personally are often redundant. Why say you have close personal friends? If they’re close friends, obviously they are people you know well. When you state, “Personally, I enjoy skiing,” that’s the way you feel. Personally adds nothing but redundant clutter.
- Proofreading involves more than looking for typos. Proofread for spelling errors, grammar and punctuation problems, content, awkward phrasing, redundancies, clichés, parallelism, jargon and slang. If that seems too much to look for on one go-through, proofread more than once, looking for just a few problems (or even one) at a time. Your readers will thank you, and your writing will show you to be a professional.
It’s been my experience that when people see a very long sentence they immediately decide it’s a run-0n. In fact, you can have one sentence comprising thousands of words (even though no one would possibly want this), and it would not be a run-on, as long as it was structured correctly.
A run-on is a complete sentence, no matter how long or short, that is joined to another complete sentence by two different means:
- Jim is tall his brother is shorter. Here you have two complete sentences that have nothing to join them. This is the classic run-on.
- Jim is tall, his brother is shorter. Here the two sentences are joined by a comma, making what is known as a comma splice, another form of a run-on.
It’s easy to fix run-ons.
- You can put a period between the two sentences: Jim is tall. His brother is shorter. With very short sentences like these, using a period may seem a bit simplistic, but it’s not wrong.
- You can also use a semicolon between the two sentences, assuming they are closely related in subject matter: Jim is tall; his brother is shorter.
- You can add a connecting word: Jim is tall although his brother is shorter.
We most often write run-ons when we’re in a hurry. If we don’t take time to proofread (audibly—quietly so you can hear your own voice—and slowly), chances are we won’t catch them. But our readers may, and it’s best not to let that happen. It may not be fair, but we are often judged by our writing.
Mark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.
Here are two more frequently confused and misused words:
PRESCRIBE means to recommend: I hope my doctor will prescribe something to cure my bronchitis.
PROSCRIBE means to forbid: When you go to the rally, you will have to remain on the lawn and will not be able to enter the proscribed area in front of it.
You often hear and see these two words used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. It depends on whether you are leaving or arriving.
IMMIGRATE is the word to use when referring to people entering a new country: Canada has experienced great interest from people wanting to immigrate to that country from the United States.
EMIGRATE is used to refer to people leaving a country to take up residence elsewhere: Many people are considering emigrating from the United States to Canada .