One noteworthy characteristic of effective writers is their logical and strategic arrangement of words. They know that to convey their messages accurately, their sentences must be clear and unambiguous.
They also know that careless word order—in particular, the careless placement of modifiers—may imply fuzzy thinking.
As you may recall from high school grammar lessons of yore, modifiers are words or phrases (i.e., groups of words) that describe or limit the meaning of other words. When a modifier is incorrectly situated in a sentence, readers may be confused (even if only momentarily), amused (particularly in the case of dangling modifiers, the topic of a future post), or misinformed.
This post is the first in a series on miscreant modifiers. Depending on how their position affects the surrounding text, these troublesome words are traditionally categorized as misplaced, squinting, or dangling.
We begin our series by focusing on misplaced single-word culprits: only, just, simply, even, almost, barely, nearly, mainly, mostly, and so forth. As this post will demonstrate, even benign misplaced modifiers reveal, at the very least, a lack of clarity on the part of the writer—and more egregious ones invite a serious misreading.
Consider the difference between these two sentences:
Unclear: Technical problems with electronic voting machines nearly caused 4,000 people to wait in line for over five hours to vote.
Clear: Technical problems with electronic voting machines caused nearly 4,000 people to wait in line for over five hours to vote.
In the first sentence, nearly modifies the verb caused, and the sentence suggests that the problems nearly caused—but, in the end, did not cause—people to wait in line for hours. According to this sentence, the crisis was, in fact, averted.
The second sentence places nearly before the number of people affected, an arrangement that common sense tells us is, given the context, the more logical and accurate choice.
Of course, most readers likely would have figured out the unclear sentence’s intended meaning. Good writers, however, do not burden their audiences with the task of unravelling their prose; instead, they take pains to express their ideas as precisely and straightforwardly as possible rather than leave themselves open to misinterpretation.
To highlight the importance of word order, let’s compare four similar sentences that include the word only (probably the most misplaced modifier of all time):
Unclear: My two-year-old child only ate cereal for breakfast.
Here, only modifies the verb ate. Anyone who has ever spent time with a toddler knows that it is, indeed, quite a feat if the child only eats the cereal and does not also dump it on the floor or mash it on the table. Nonetheless, most listeners/readers would assume that only was meant to modify something else in the sentence. But what, exactly?
These next three sentences, each with only in a different location, illustrate the variety of possible interpretations a reader might garner from a carelessly placed one-word modifier:
- My two-year-old child ate only cereal for breakfast. (She wouldn’t touch the banana.)
- My two-year-old child ate cereal for breakfast only. (She refused it at snack time.)
- Only my two-year-old child ate cereal for breakfast. (My six-year-old had toast. OR My neighbor’s two-year-old child had toast.)
All three sentences make more sense than the original, but each imparts a meaning quite distinct from the others.
“All Are Not” vs. “Not All Are”
Beware: The expressions “all are not” and “not all are” are NOT interchangeable, as denoted by the following:
- All the jurors are not able to return next week.
- Not all the jurors are able to return next week.
The first statement puts forth the very unlikely scenario that none of the jurors will be able to return next week, whereas the second one asserts that only some of them won’t be able to. Logically, the latter sense is probably the one the writer/speaker wished to convey and the one most readers would understand—but this example hints at the potential perils of imprecisely placed modifiers (in this case, the word all).
The mistake of conflating “all are not” with “not all are” is so common that Get It Write has devoted an entire post to the topic.
The Squinting Modifier
Sometimes a modifier is “squinting”; that is, it could feasibly relate to the word(s) on either side of it. This perplexing construction puts the onus once again on the reader, who may have to pause to deduce the author’s meaning:
- Running quickly increases cardiovascular fitness.
Is the key to increasing one’s cardiovascular fitness running quickly, or does simply running—at any pace—increase a person’s cardiovascular fitness quickly? The reader isn’t sure.
- For some people, eating quickly leads to indigestion.
Similarly, is it the act of eating quickly that leads to indigestion for some people, or does indigestion set in quickly after eating at any pace for some unfortunate folks? Again, the reader is left to decide. Here are four more bemusing statements:
- The bicycle he bought recently was stolen from his garage.
- Dorothy’s Delectable Doughnuts is open on weekends only in July and August.
- Her husband’s driving slowly began to annoy her.
- The customer who was asked to leave rudely replied that he would be contacting the store manager.
It’s easy to overlook squinting (and misplaced) modifiers in our own writing because, well, we usually know exactly what we’re trying to say! But readers are not privy to the thoughts behind the words, nor are they able to pick up clues from the author’s overall tone of voice and emphasis on certain words (unless, of course, the text is being read aloud). If in doubt as to whether a passage is likely to be misconstrued, consider running it by a friend or colleague.
How do we handle squinting—also called two-way—modifiers? Often, they can be repaired simply by moving them within the sentence. But if that strategy won’t work, adding or changing one or more words could. For instance, in example 2, if “eating quickly” leads to indigestion, adding the adverbs too and often would denote this: “For some people, eating too quickly often leads [or “can lead”] to indigestion.” The alternate meaning could be expressed by “For some people, indigestion sets in quickly after eating.”
In example 5, the confusion could be cleared up by writing either “Her husband’s slow driving began to annoy her” or “Slowly, her husband’s driving began to annoy her.”
Remember: Good communication is logical, clear, and precise. Skillful writers (and speakers) pay close attention to how they arrange their words even when the chances of misinterpretation are remote. They know that the unambiguous placement of modifiers is essential to well-constructed, easy-to-understand prose—and they avoid making readers puzzle over the intended meaning.
Test Yourself: Are the modifiers in bold placed appropriately?
- The attorney only hired three new clerks during the 2017–18 fiscal year.
- Anthony Miller has nearly offended every coworker in his department.
- Eleanor almost paid a year’s worth of wages for her vacation trip to Rome.
- The judge only heard four cases during the first session.
- Despite months of isolation at home, we only turned on the television once or twice a week.
- The doctor was mostly concerned about Sarah’s mental health.
- Add the sour cream to the dry ingredients and just stir until the mixture is combined.
- The attorney hired only three new clerks during the 2017–18 fiscal year. (The original sentence suggests that the attorney only hired the clerks but didn’t train them, pay them, give them workspace, etc.)
- Anthony Miller has offended nearly every coworker in his department. (The original sentence implies that Miller ended up offending no one.)
- Eleanor paid almost a year’s worth of wages for her vacation trip to Rome. (The original sentence implies that she changed her mind—almost paid—and in the end did not pay at all.)
- The judge heard only four cases during the first session. (The original sentence suggests that the judge only heard the cases but did not rule on them.)
- Despite months of isolation at home, we turned on the television only once or twice a week. (The original sentence says we only turned on the television but didn’t watch it, turn it off, etc.)
- The doctor was concerned mostly about Sarah’s mental health. (The original sentence suggests that the writer is measuring the degree of concern as compared to other reactions—perhaps surprise, dismay, or anger. But in fact the writer is trying to convey that the doctor’s concern is directed primarily (mostly) at Sarah’s mental, rather than physical, health.)
- Add the sour cream to the dry ingredients and stir just until the mixture is combined. (The original sentence instructs the cook to just stir the mixture—not beat or fold or whip it.)
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