Sentences: Position of Modifiers

To write good sentences, writers must understand what it is that their sentence says. Sentences have a life of their own — they say what the words and word order say, not what the writer might intend them to say, not what the writer might expect everybody to understand as her intent. If a writer is careless or indifferent to sentence structure, her sentences may create confusion. Or ridicule. 

Below are two examples of sentences that say what the words and word order say. The first causes confusion due to its ambiguous pronoun reference. The second sentence says that a book wrote a book: this one may arouse laughter due to the misplaced modifier. I’ve rewritten each sentence so that there’s no ambiguity in the first and no dangling modifier in the second.

Lisa’s sister told her she had to add more paprika to the spice mix.
“If you don’t add more paprika to that spice mix,” Claire told her sister Lisa, “I won’t eat your insipid stew!”
Lisa’s sister added more paprika to the spice mix, just as she had warned Lisa she would.

An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Rangers is the author’s best book to date.
The author is an accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, and Rangers is his best book to date.
An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Joe Borders has written his best book to date: Rangers.

I sometimes think that well more than half of all incorrectly written English sentences are victims of misplaced modifiers. That’s what’s wrong with the second of the above examples — the first part of the sentence is meant to modify the author himself. It is not meant to modify his book: the book is not an accomplished, best-selling writer. Yet the writer of that sentence has unthinkingly placed the modifier where it doesn’t belong, possibly thinking that the words on the page say what’s in his/her head. They don’t. They say what the words and word order say — that Rangers is a best-selling writer. Rangers is not a best-selling writer. Rangers is the book written by the best-selling writer.

To understand what is wrong about misplaced modifiers, it helps to know that English, which evolved from several other languages (Latin, French, Norse, German, Anglo-Saxon), evolved in a revolutionary way. These other languages depended on word endings to tell the listener or reader what the sentence meant. Words could appear in a sentence pretty much in any order: it wasn’t the order, but the word ending, that told who did what to whom in what manner and when.

English changed that. English made position the factor that determines meaning. “The bear chased Gretchen” means something entirely different from “Gretchen chased the bear.”

In English, words and phrases should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase that they modify — not in a willy-nilly order as the writer may think of them.  When the writer does not follow this logical pattern, sentences may unintentionally misinform or say ludicrous things — as in the three sentences featured below.

• A costumed person raced past me, leading a dachshund in a wizard’s robe.
• I wrote the song while traveling on the back of a menu.
• Screeching around the corner on two wheels, the house was on fire.

Just a few days ago I stood in front of a sign which read: Stand behind the pink line until called to ensure the privacy of other patients. My immediate reaction (with a touch of panic) was that I would be called upon to ensure the privacy of other patients.

Then I realized that the sign couldn’t possibly mean what I thought, so I had to spend a few seconds figuring out what the sign was trying to say. It was trying to say:  In order to ensure the privacy of other patients, please stand behind the pink line until called. This puts the phrase that explains “why” closer to stand than to called — the phrase belongs as close as possible to the verb it actually modifies, else it will seem to modify the other verb! The phrase explains why one is required to stand behind the pink line; it does not explain why one will be called.

To write clear sentences, avoid misplacing your modifying phrases. 

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In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, Barbara Gregorich discusses the topic of writing well.

4 thoughts on “Sentences: Position of Modifiers

  1. “Lisa’s sister told her she had to add more paprika to the spice mix.” How about just adding *that* so it would be, “told her that she had to…?” Other than wondering what Lisa’s sister’s name is, though I’m assuming we already know because it’s a sentence out of a story, I thought it was okay as is. Am I too forgiving?

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    • I think that adding the “that” (I like “that” in sentences) still doesn’t make it clear who “she” refers to. Even with the “that,” the “she” could refer to Lisa, or to her sister. At least that’s the way I read it. I’m curious about your certainty in this case — when you read the sentence as it is, which person do you feel the “she” refers to? I ask that because when I read the sentence, I honestly have no idea if the “she” refers to Lisa or to her sister.

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  2. Wow, do ever feel this blog was about me : ). Guilty as charged. I only blog once a month, but if folks new how many times I edited those short epistles they’d laugh! Hmm, I can see what you’re saying Barbara. No matter how you slice it the pronoun could be taken as modifying either of the two chefs (though I can lazily infer who.) But let me get into “the mix!”

    “Lisa’s sister told her, ‘you need to add more paprika to the spice mix’.”

    I wonder what Lisa was making anyway. I’m a big fan of paprika! Great blog and chat.

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