Manglers of Meaning: Misplaced Modifiers
Misplaced modifiers aren't words or phrases that are lost; they're words or phrases that you've put in the wrong place. All of your words — whether they're single words, phrases, or clauses — should be as close as possible to whatever they modify (the words they describe or elaborate on). Take a look at this sentence, written with a single word in the wrong place:
After her wreck, Joanna could comprehend what the ambulance driver was barely saying.
The way the sentence is written, the ambulance driver is barely speaking — but surely that's not what the writer meant. Barely is out of its correct place because it modifies the wrong word. It should be moved so that it modifies the verb could comprehend. The sentence should be written this way:
After her wreck, Joanna could barely comprehend what the ambulance driver was saying.
In addition to being single words, misplaced modifiers can also be phrases, as in this example:
Witnesses reported that the woman was driving the getaway car with flowing black hair.
How interesting — a car with flowing black hair. With flowing black hair is in the wrong place in this sentence (it's misplaced) and should be placed after woman. That way, the sentence would read:
Witnesses reported that the woman with flowing black hair was driving the getaway car.
Clauses, too, can be put in the wrong place, as in the following sentence:
Paulette Dixon couldn't stop thinking about her sick baby running in the six-mile road race.
That's quite a baby who can run a six-mile road race (not to mention running while being sick). The clause running in the six-mile road race is out of place in this sentence; it should be closer to the noun it modifies (Paulette Dixon). The sentence should be reworded this way:
Running in the six-mile road race, Paulette Dixon couldn't stop thinking about her sick baby.
A frequent problem often arises with the word not. In speaking, we frequently say something like this:
All the chairs in the office are not comfortable for the employees.
The problem with that blanket statement is that the word not may be in the wrong place. If the meaning was that some of the chairs were uncomfortable, then the sentence should be reworded this way:
Not all the chairs in the office are comfortable for the employees.
One of the most common problems with misplaced modifiers comes with what are called limiting modifiers — words like almost, even, hardly, just, merely, nearly, only (the one misplaced most often), scarcely, and simply. To convey the correct meaning, limiting modifiers must be placed in front of the words they modify.
Take a look at these sentences:
Already, Mr. Goulooze has almost eaten four slabs of ribs!
How does a person almost eat something? Did he have great willpower four different times? Or should the sentence be reworded to say that Mr. Goulooze has eaten almost four slabs of ribs?
Richard has nearly wrecked every car he's had.
Has Richard nearly wrecked the cars — in which case, he should be grateful for his luck — or has he wrecked nearly every car?