Tag Archives: most commonly misplaced modifier

Don’t Let Others Laugh at Your Writing

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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.

 

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The “Only” Problem

“Only” is the most commonly misplaced modifier.  Depending where you put it in a sentence, it changes the meaning entirely.

Here is a basic sentence:  I read the newspaper.  Now let’s play around with “only.”

1. Only I read the newspaper.  This says no one else in this house reads it; I am the only one who does.

2. I only read the newspaper.  I don’t do anything else with it: I don’t recycle it, I don’t line the birdcage with it, I don’t put it in the bottom of the cat’s litter box.

3. I read only the newspaper.  I don’t read books or magazines or anything else, just the newspaper.

4. I read the only newspaper.  This town has just one newspaper, so that’s the one I read.

5. I read the newspaper only. This has the same meaning as #3.

The trick with all modifiers is to put them right next to the word about which you want to give more information.

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