My Florida friend Cami found this confusing sentence in the Miami Herald. (She notes that Opa-Locka is a section of the Miami area): “A homeless family of six was found by Opa-Locka police officers living in their car.”
No doubt, this is a tragic situation. But from a grammatical standpoint, the sentence raises two questions: were the officers living in the same car with the family of six, or were the officers living in their separate car? It’s hard to tell because of the use of the pronoun their in the phrase living in their car. Their could refer to either the family or the police. Make sure you can clearly draw a mental arrow from your pronouns to their antecedents (the word or words they refer to).
It’s easy to fix this sentence. The rule with modifiers (words that give more information) is to place them right next to the word or words they are modifying. A clear version of this sentence would be, “A homeless family of six living in their car was found by Opa-Locka police officers.”
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.
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.
© Judi Birnberg 2016
Pots are Better Than Shoes
Misplaced modifiers happen when a word or group of words ends up modifying (giving information about) another word in the sentence. Often, the results are very funny.
I found this in one of my favorite magazines, The Week, which is a digest of articles from around the world. In an article on street food, with an accompanying recipe for Dan Dan Noodles (too complicated for me), Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau, chefs at a Philadelphia restaurant, V Street, declare, “We want the stuff that a little old lady is frying up in her flip-flops….”
Where to begin? First of all, how does the little old lady stand the heat? How does the food stay on her flip-flops? And do we really want to eat food cooked on a shoe and redolent of the odor of the foot that recently occupied that flip-flop?
I just came across a blurb for a beautiful cat that had been rescued. Here is a little bit of that cat’s story:
“When she was a wee kitten she was thrown over a fence at a bowling club and abandoned. She was adopted by the elderly man who found her and his wife.”
What a bonanza of a day for that elderly man! He not only found this lovely kitten over the fence of the bowling club—but he found a wife there too!
Word order matters. The second sentence should have read something like, “Along with his wife, the elderly man who found the kitten adopted her.”
In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, a little squib (are squibs ever large?) announced that Eddie Redmayne and his wife had had their first child. The next sentence was,”The actor confirmed in January they were expecting their first child at the Golden Globes.”
This, my friends, is a misplaced modifier. They were not expecting this baby at the Golden Globes, as the text states. They were attending the Golden Globes when Redmayne made the announcement. When you use a modifier, put it immediately next to the words it refers to. To fix this sentence all you have to do is write, “The actor confirmed at the Golden Globes in January they were expecting their first child.” Done!
Often, when the modifier is in the wrong place, you may inadvertently cause people to laugh at you: The man chased his neighbor’s dog in orange pajamas and carrying a broom.”
I saw this idea on Facebook today; it reminded me of an exercise I used to do with my corporate writing groups.
Place the word ONLY anywhere in the following sentence and see how it changes the meaning:
SHE TOLD HIM THAT SHE LOVED HIM.
Only she told him that she loved him. (No one else did.)
She only told him that she loved him. (But she didn’t show him she did.)
She told only him that she loved him. (She didn’t tell that to anyone else.)
She told him only that she loved him. (She didn’t tell him anything else.)
She told him that only she loved him. (No one else loves him.)
She told him that she only loved him. (But she didn’t like or admire him.)
She told him that she loved only him. (She loves no one else.)
She told him that she loved him only. (Again, she loves no one else.)
ONLY is a modifier. That means it gives information about another part of the sentence. Modifiers may be one word or a group of words. They should be placed right next to the word you want to give more information about. If you put modifiers in the wrong place, you are creating, yes, misplaced modifiers. At times that will lead to embarrassing or awkward situations:
Be certain to buy enough yarn to finish your mittens before you start.
Wearing red noses and floppy hats, we laughed at the clown.
For sale: Mixing bowl set for chef with round bottom for efficient beating.
I know you don’t want people to laugh at your writing, so check for misplaced modifiers as part of your proofreading.