Misplaced Words and Phrases

Wrong

Right

Rationale

We could understand the Spanish spoken by our visitors from Madrid easily.

We could easily understand the Spanish spoken by our visitors from Madrid

In general, you should place single-word modifiers near the word or words they modify, especially when a reader might think that they modify something different in the sentence

Defining your terms clearly strengthens your argument.

(Does defining “clearly strengthen” or does “defining clearly” strengthen?)

Defining your terms will clearly strengthen your argument.

–OR–

A clear definition of your terms strengthens your argument.

A squinting modifier is an ambiguously placed modifier that can modify either the word before it or the word after it. In other words, it is “squinting” in both directions at the same time.

Cuyler has nearly annoyed every teacher he has had.

We almost ate all of the Thanksgiving turkey.

Cuyler has annoyed nearly every teacher he has had.

We ate almost all of the Thanksgiving turkey.

It is particularly important to be careful about where you put limiting modifiers. These are words like “almost,” “hardly,” “nearly,” “just,” “only,” “merely,” and so on. You can accidentally change the entire meaning of a sentence if you place these modifiers next to the wrong word.

I heard that my roommate intended to throw a surprise party for me while I was outside her bedroom window.

By accident, he poked the little girl with his finger in the eye.

While I was outside her bedroom window, I heard that my roommate intended to throw a surprise party for me.

By accident, he poked the little girl in the eye with his finger.

It is important that you place the modifying phrase or clause as close as possible to the word or words it modifies.


The Dangling Modifier

A dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that does not connect grammatically with what it is intended to modify. The problem is most common with adjective participial phrases, especially when they open the sentence. Such open participial phrases can be taken to modify the noun, but when the noun is not present in the sentence, then the phrase becomes nonsensical.

Wrong

Right

Explanation

Having finished the Huck Finn essay, the TV was turned on.

Having finished the Huck Finn essay, Danielle turned on the TV.

Having finished is a participle expressing action, but the doer is not the TV set (the subject of the main clause): TV sets don’t finish assignments. Since the doer of the action expressed in the participle has not been clearly stated, the participial phrase is said to be a dangling modifier.

After reading the essay, the article remains unconvincing.

Without knowing his name, it was difficult to introduce him.

After reading the essay, I find the article unconvincing.

–OR

The essay remains unconvincing in light of the original article.

Because Maria did not know his name, it was difficult to introduce him.

Ways to Fix Dangling Modifiers:

1) Name the appropriate or logical doer of the action as the subject of the main clause.

2) Change the phrase that dangles into a complete introductory clause by naming the doer of the action in that clause.

3) Combine the phrase and main clause into one

Split Infinitives

The infinitive form of the verb consists of the word “to” followed by the base form of the verb: “to be,” “to serve,” “to chop,” etc. Inserting a word or words between the “to” and the verb of an infinitive creates what is known as a split infinitive. Prescriptive grammarians, who knew Latin grammar better than English, once decreed that a split infinitive was an error, but now it is growing increasingly acceptable even in formal writing.

Right

Wrong

Explanation

The school board voted to ask the teachers to express their feelings before pursuing the use of drug dogs in the faculty lounge.

The school board voted to, before pursuing the use of drug dogs in the faculty lounge, ask the teachers to express their feelings.

Avoid splitting the infinitive when there will be a long modifying phrase.

He decided to promptly return the money he found.

He promptly decided to return the money he found.

He decided to return the money he found promptly.

He decided promptly to return the money he found.

Unsplitting an infinitive can at times be an error—because the revision changes the intended meaning or results in ambiguity. Consider how the meaning of each of these sentences is altered subtly from the original.

to increase profits substantially

to obey the law of the land at all times

to deal with the economic slump quickly and decisively

The company hopes to substantially increase profits.

They promised to at all times obey the law of the land.

They planned to quickly and decisively deal with the economic slump.

There are times, of course, when a split infinitive sounds more awkward than alternative phrasing.