A misplaced modifier is one that is improperly separated from the word (or “element”) it is intended to describe, restrict, or alter. When the modifier within a sentence lacks a clear referent, the sentence often sounds ridiculous, or confusing. This is so, because, in English, the order of words affects the meaning of a sentence, as illustrated in these amusing examples from legal writing expert Richard C. Wydick’s Plain English for Lawyers, 5th ed.:
The defendant was arrested for fornicating under a little-used statute.
My client has discussed your proposal to fill the drainage ditch with his partners.
Being beyond any doubt insane, Judge Weldon ordered the petitioner’s transfer to a state mental hospital.
So as not to distract or confuse the reader, make sure to place the modifying words as close as possible to the words you want them to modify. That will help you avoid penning sentences like these.
For example, moving with his partners to the spot immediately after the word, discussed, eliminates the misplaced modifier problem in the second sentence.
Watch out, too, for what Wydick calls the “squinting” modifier, that is, one whose mid-sentence placement makes the sentence’s meaning ambiguous. A “squinting” modifier can be read as modifying either what precedes it, or what comes after:
A trustee who steals dividends often cannot be punished.
What does often modify? Does the sentence mean, as Wydick puts it, that crime frequently pays? Or that frequent crime pays?
A squinting modifier can easily be fixed by rearranging the words in the sentence.
Consider this one:
When workers are injured frequently no compensation is paid.
If the writer intends to say that injured workers frequently receive no compensation, the modifier should be moved to the front of the sentence, so that it no longer “squints.” Thus, the sentence’s meaning becomes clear:
Frequently, workers who are injured receive no compensation.
The word only is a troublemaker as a modifier, as Wydick points out. Unless you are extra careful in placing it, you are likely to create a sentence that means something other than what you intended. For example, if you put only in each of the seven possible spots in the following sentence, you’ll see that six different meanings can be produced:
She said that he shot her.
To keep control of only, place it immediately before the word it is to modify, as Wydick tell us. Or if that creates ambiguity, isolate it at the beginning or end of the sentence, as he says.
The meaning of this sentence is ambiguous:
Lessee shall use the vessel only for recreation.
But the meaning of this one is clear:
Lessee must use the vessel for recreation only.
Finally, watch out for ambiguity in sentences where a modifying phrase is followed by a relative clause:
The grantor was John Smith, the father of Sarah Smith, who later married Kelly Jones.
Who married Kelly? John, or Sarah?
Clear up the confusion by placing the relative pronoun (like who, which, or that) immediately after the word it is supposed to modify. So, if Kelly’s husband is John Smith, the sentence should be re-written as follows:
The grantor was Sarah Smith’s father, John Smith, who later married Kelly Jones.
About the author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF.