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.

Color-Coding Your Manuscript

Although I had heard about color-coding a manuscript before rewriting it, I had never employed this technique until last year. In addition to writing books, I weave baskets, so it seems natural for me to draw an analogy between what one does when weaving a basket and what one does in a color-coded rewrite.

I first started weaving baskets in 2003. And the first ones I wove were simple weaving: 01/U1. That stands for Over 1, Under 1, and that’s what you do with the weaver: you weave it over one stake, and under the next stake. Then over one, then under one, until you’re back at the beginning and need to start the next row.

Simple weave is used for many baskets. Probably most of the baskets I’ve woven are simple weave. But the strongest baskets have a twill weave. In basketry, a twill weave is any combination of O/U except O1/U1. A simple twill can be O2/U1, or O2/U2. A complex twill might contain combinations of  07/U1, O5/U3, and so on. The picture is a Cherokee pattern basket I wove maybe ten years ago. You can see that the pattern is complex. 

One can weave a basket, and one can weave a story. You’ve probably heard some form of the expression, “He/she weaves a good story.” That’s because stories, particularly longer ones such as novels, contain patterns/themes/motifs that the writer weaves or threads through the story. In a story, as in a basket, the tighter the weave, the stronger the product. A loose weave is a sloppy weave. Not pleasant to look at. And it’s weak.

If writing were basketry, then most novels would be considered twills because they have several elements woven through them, sometimes in complex ways.

If you’re weaving a basket and you forget to pull a weaver through a particular spot, three things are going to happen: (1) there will be a definite weak spot in the basket where you missed the pattern; (2) the looks of the basket will be disrupted — something will look odd or out of place or missing; (3) this missing piece is going to disturb the user. 

The same thing is true of a manuscript. If you forget or “drop” one of your motifs, you will create a weak spot in your story — the flow of the story will be disrupted and the reader will be unsettled, either wanting to hear about the missing part, or forgetting about it and then being surprised or annoyed when you pick it up again.

Writing teachers are constantly devising methods to help writers create stronger stories when they rewrite their manuscripts. One such method, which I think was invented by Darcy Pattison (but I’m not sure), is the “Shrunken Manuscript” method. What she calls the shrunken manuscript I call color-coding.

Once you have a manuscript ready for rewrite, consider the important elements that you want to weave through it. If you’re rewriting nonfiction, I think 3 or 4 motifs are sufficient. If you’re rewriting fiction, I suspect you could have 3-6 motifs. Motifs are dominant ideas in a work of art. Two of the motifs in my novel are: the protagonist’s relationship to cross country running, and the protagonist’s relationship with his father. Fiction is more complex than nonfiction, hence the greater number of weavers you want to move through the story. After you’ve named your motifs, assign each a color. 

Last year I rewrote my first YA novel four times. On the fifth rewrite I used color-coding, and with the help of a friend I named six motifs to weave through the story: the two named above, plus four others. These elements were already present in the manuscript: they just needed to be woven through the story consistently. I work on an Apple computer, on which I use Pages as my word processing program, so it was very easy for me to use the Pages color selections. Choose six strong, bold colors and assign one to each motif.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you start color-coding, make a copy of your manuscript — you do want an original, uncolored manuscript around, in case an editor wants to see it. Title the copy something like NOVEL A, Color-Coded. Then, for each color motif you chose, go through the manuscript once, selecting everything that pertains to that motif. Color it. I not only colored it, I underlined it as well, so that it would stand out even more when shrunken. (Later I learned that it would have been easier to color the space behind the type: that method will make the color sections stand out better.) I had six motifs I wanted to trace, so I went through my manuscript SIX. TIMES. This was tedious work, but it was very worthwhile. I got to see where I dealt with issues, whether I did it in page-long sections, in paragraph-long sections, in single sentences, or even in phrases. 

Don’t try to combine passages through the manuscript. That is, don’t try to do your reds and blues at the same time: it’s guaranteed that you won’t be paying as close attention as if you were looking for just one of these motifs. Chances are you will miss something.

Manuscript written and color-coded by Chris Tebbetts.

Next comes the shrinking part. Select your entire manuscript and reduce it to 6 point type. Get rid of chapter breaks if you need to, so that what you have is pretty much all text. The end result is your shrunken manuscript.

Now look at your color-coded shrunken pages. If you can line them up in a “light table” mode across your computer, all the better. If not, you will have to deal with them in a vertical fashion. In either case, you should be able to see where a color goes on vacation for a while — no purple for, like, 60 pages! This means you’ve dropped that motif for quite a while. There’s a gap there, and you need to work that purple motif into the gap.

The example above is a color-coded shrunken manuscript from friend and critique-group member Chris Tebbetts, co-author of James Patterson’s Middle School series.

When I used color-coding on my 320-page YA novel and then shrank it, it reduced to something like 73 pages. When I looked at my color-coding, I learned something that, to my knowledge, articles on the topic didn’t cover. What I learned was that some writers handle their motifs in chunks, others handle their motifs in mostly slivers. For the Chunk writers, who deal in pages and paragraphs, the colors on the shrunken ms show up in vivid blocks.

For the Sliver writers, who handle their motifs, or some of their motifs, in sentences or phrases . . . those tiny little slivers of color don’t show up very well in a shrunken manuscript. I, alas, saw that half of the time my motifs were dealt with in slivers. And I couldn’t see those thin lines of color.

So I made myself a chart in which I numbered each of my 73 pages on the left, listed each of my six motifs across the top, and filled in the colors if they were there, left the chart blank if the colors weren’t there. Creating the chart took me a while, but this was time well spent, because the chart made rewriting so much easier. I taped this chart to my bookcase and looked at it every day when I rewrote.

Color-coding my manuscript helped me see that, even though I thought I never dropped any of the weavers, I did indeed drop three of them from time to time. In the rewrite, I added them back in — making for what I hope is a tighter story with no places where the themes are dropped. 

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For a colorful setting, read Barbara Gregorich’s mystery novel, Sound Proof.