Engaging prose makes good use of modifiers. Descriptive words—adjectives, adverbs, and phrases—add the kind of detail that draws the reader into a story or clarifies a piece of nonfiction. But beware the misplaced modifier. Confusion or unintended humor can result when the descriptive word or phrase is placed too far from the word it modifies.
Growing up on a farm, I often heard my dad say, “Well, I guess I’ll go throw the cows over the fence some hay.” At the time, I thought it was just his way of saying, “time to get back to work.” And it may have been. But it was also one of those expressions that makes its way into the vernacular of non-native English speakers when they fail to understand how proper ordering of nouns, verbs, and modifiers is so critical in the English language. The Yankee Dutch readings that were a staple of entertainment in the Dutch-American community of my youth are replete with humorous examples of misplaced modifiers.
In Dad’s example, the object or target of throw is hay. But when throw is placed in proximity to cows, rather than hay, the picture is one of throwing the cows, rather than the hay over the fence. A similar mis-ordering of noun and modifier occurred in a hit, mid-20th century song, Throw Mama from the Train a Kiss. Move kiss closer to throw – throw a kiss to mama – may not flow as well lyrically, but clarifies the intended sentiment.
The best practice to avoid misplaced modifiers is to keep modifers and their objects or targets as close together as possible as these examples illustrate:
- The bus station was located by a river which was made of red brick.
The river was made of red brick? Not likely. How ‘bout the bus station? Bring the phrase that describes the bus station closer to its target and you have, “The bus station, which was made of red brick, was located by a river.”
- The contractors needed all kinds of artists to paint the mural badly.
This is a good example of how changing the placement of an adverb affects the meaning of a sentence. It should be obvious that the contractor did not want the mural painted badly. Heck, anyone could paint badly. No, the contractors had a desperate need for artists who could paint the mural. Keep the adverb close to the verb: The contractors badly needed all kinds of artists to paint the mural. Both contractors and artists should be happier with the outcome.
- Wading through the surf, the shark caught Bob off guard.
Beginning a sentence with a participial phrase, as I’ve done here, has the potential for separating the modifier from its target. That is the problem in the example above. The shark is the target of wading through the surf. And we all know that sharks swim, not wade. Correct order would have Bob wading: As Bob waded through the surf, the shark caught him off guard.
For clear, effective writing, keep modifiers and targets close together.