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Excuse Me, Have You Misplaced Your Modifier?

Frances Peck
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 3, 2003, page 22)

My first article for Terminology Update, back in March 2001, was "The Elusive Dangling Modifier." Dangling modifiers are a pet peeve of many language enthusiasts. After all, what good can possibly come of a sentence like "While driving through the countryside, a great idea struck him"?

But the dangling modifier is just one member of the extended family we call misplaced modifiers. Here are some of its less renowned, but equally egregious, kinfolk.

Garden-variety misplacements

In English we enjoy a certain latitude for placement of modifiers, especially "ly" adverbs, within sentences. Moving a modifier around changes a sentence’s emphasis, rhythm and structure. Consider, for instance, the placement of vigorously in these three sentences:

  • Emily rowed the dinghy vigorously.
  • Emily vigorously rowed the dingy.
  • Vigorously, Emily rowed the dinghy.

Notice that in all three sentences the adverb is close to the verb it describes. The trouble arises the minute a modifier drifts away from what it modifies:

  • Ray gazed at the frosty glass of beer on the table in front of him longingly.

Here longingly is misplaced, stranded at the end of the sentence instead of appearing near gazed, which it is supposed to describe.

Single-word modifiers are not the only ones in danger of becoming misplaced. Groups of words that modify are just as susceptible. Consider this sentence:

  • Before he knew how to walk, Jack told his wife that he could swim.

Because the dependent clause Before he knew how to walk is placed near the verb told, it modifies that verb, telling us (rather astonishingly) that Jack shared this information with his wife before he even knew how to walk. Of course the modifier should instead be near swim, the verb it belongs with. Repositioning the modifier restores the sentence (not to mention Jack’s development) to its logical order:

  • Jack told his wife that he could swim before he knew how to walk.

Misplaced modifiers are all around us, and they often say silly things. Consider this sentence from an article on sci-fi movies: "Silent Running is a film about a scientist left alone in space with actor Bruce Dern." Or this one from a student essay: "I decided to go on the Ferris wheel with my boyfriend, the only thing my stomach could tolerate." And a translator spotted this sign across from a Moscow graveyard: "You are welcome to visit the cemetery, where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday."

Limiting modifiers

Some of the sneakiest misplaced modifiers are the limiting modifiers, which include almost, nearly, only, even, hardly, just, merely, scarcely and simply. So-called because they limit the meaning of the word they qualify—as in "the victim almost died"—limiting modifiers regularly creep into the wrong spot. Even very good writers must guard against sentences such as this:

  • As they surveyed the wreckage of the feast, they realized they had almost eaten all of the Thanksgiving turkey.

Though the author means that everyone ate copiously, the sentence actually says "they had almost eaten," meaning they came close to eating but in fact didn’t eat at all. Almost should instead precede all, the word it is intended to limit.

Those who are more freewheeling than fastidious may declare that it surely doesn’t matter if a limiting modifier is slightly misplaced as long as the meaning is clear. Well, maybe. It’s true that when we read "Glenn nearly hiked to the top of Gros Morne," we don’t really think that he "nearly hiked"—laced up his boots, strapped on his pack, yet never left the trailhead. But what about more ambiguous sentences? Does "Archie has nearly insulted everyone he knows" mean that Archie is tactless (he has insulted many people) or discreet (he withholds his remarks at the last minute)? Is someone who writes "I only like you" professing strong, indeed exclusive, feelings (I like you and no one else), or brushing you off (my feelings are only platonic)?

In the end it’s usually better, not to mention safer, to keep limiting modifiers where they belong, right in front of what they modify.

Split infinitives

Splitting an infinitive ("to eat") means inserting a modifier between to and the verb ("to heartily eat"). The second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, begins its lengthy entry on split infinitives with this observation: "The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish."

Those in categories (2) and (3) in particular should take note that the split infinitive is no longer the knuckle-rapping grammatical error it once was. Grammar texts since at least the late 1970s have taken a more relaxed view of the rule—itself somewhat dubious, having arisen in the nineteenth century in an attempt to force English to mirror Latin, in which the infinitive is a single word and therefore uninterruptible.

So where does the split infinitive stand today? It’s still wise to avoid placing long, disruptive modifiers between to and the verb of an infinitive. But even the most conservative language authorities consider it acceptable to split an infinitive with a single modifier, especially if placing the word elsewhere makes the sentence awkward.

  • NO As he gets ready to go out on Friday night, Evan’s custom is to loudly, lustily and unabashedly sing along to such jewels of the disco era as "Car Wash" and "Love Machine." (too many modifiers splitting the infinitive)
  • YES The twins have entered the Cowpoke County pie-eating contest to finally settle the question of who can eat more. (one modifier naturally splitting the infinitive)

It’s clear that most modifiers can, to some extent, roam around in sentences. But careful writers are masters of their words. They keep their modifiers on a tight leash, never letting them stray too far from the word they belong with.