Monday, March 22, 2010

Squinting Modifiers

A couple of weeks ago, in the course of another post, I used the term squinting modifier. This drew several comments, and I thought it made sense to explore this concept a little more thoroughly.

To begin (as we always begin posts about modifiers and sentence structure), let's review the Golden Rule of Modifiers. Say it with me now after the chorus of angels sings its fanfare.

*chorus of angels sings fanfare*

The Golden Rule of Modifiers
Modifiers go next to the words they modify.

Over the years, we've talked pretty extensively about dangling modifiers, which are words or phrases that modify no word in the sentence, such as my perennial favorite:

Relaxing on the patio, the pizza tasted great.

Pizzas might taste great, but they don't relax on patios. Who is relaxing? Presumably the person or people eating the pizza, but there's no noun in that sentence that relates to the pizza eaters.

We've also talked pretty extensively about misplaced modifiers, primarily in the context of the dreaded PPP.

The inmate tried to escape when he saw the doctor, slipping into the nurse's station.

Who slipped into the nurse's station? The doctor or the inmate? Placement suggests it's the doctor, but logic suggests it might have been part of the inmate's escape attempt. Changing the placement clarifies the meaning:

When he saw the doctor, the inmate tried to escape, slipping into the nurse's station.

Still not a great sentence, but now it's clear which character is doing what. All we had to do was move the adverb clause, which contained a noun (doctor) that intruded between the modifier (slipping etc.) and the noun it modified (inmate).

When you're checking your sentences for clarity, try this trick. Isolate the modifying phrase, and then pick the word you mean for it to modify. We used to use the umbrella trick in grammar school. We would circle the modifier and the word it modified, and draw an umbrella arc connecting them, like so:

If another noun is under the umbrella (hello, doctor!), then you've got the potential for confusion. Try moving the phrase or clause with that under-the-umbrella noun out from under the umbrella, and the sentence is instantly clearer.

There's a third strain of this placement issue in which there are two possible modified words bracketing the modifier. In that case, the phrase can lean on either noun and create two totally different meanings:

Mary said at the prom Greg embarrassed her.

What happened at the prom? Did Mary say this, or did Greg embarrass her?

In this example, at the prom is the modifier. If it leans on the preceding clause, then we have two units of thought as so--
Mary said at the prom
Greg embarrassed her.

But if it leans on the following clause, our units of thought are--
Mary said
at the prom Greg embarrassed her.

This placement issue is known as a two-way modifier or a squinting modifier. Fixing it is easy. Figure out which way the phrase leans, and then move it in that direction. So if it leans toward Mary said, move it to the other side of that clause --

At the prom, Mary said Greg embarrassed her.

And if it leans toward Greg embarrassed her, move it to the other side of that clause--

Mary said Greg embarrassed her at the prom.

This is very easy to see when you only have three units in the sentence, as here, where we have two clauses and one modifying phrase. It gets trickier with more elaborate sentences, but only because you have to be more careful about identifying the actual direction and length of the lean. Make sure you isolate the phrases and clauses so that you move the squinter to the right place, and you'll be fine.



nerinedorman said...

Thank you for this one! I'm posting this to some of the writers' groups I participate in. I edit out dangling modifiers more often than I'd like to.

Leona said...

This is something I unconsciously have done (editing modifiers for clarification), usually after reading a passage out loud to someone.

Now I know the rules and what they are called LOL

Theresa Milstein said...

Great post! It reminds me a little of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which has been a big help to me.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I love your grammar posts! I'm linking back to this one.

Shalanna said...

Preach it! Sing it, sisters!

I have stopped counting the messed-up modifier problems that I find in published books nowadays. (I haven't stopped circling them in red, though!)

Much of the time, it's something like this:

"Turning the corner, the house was yellow."

I would love to see them DO this in a movie. Like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man coming down Fifth Avenue, it would make for a stunning image. (See, I didn't dangle that modifier. But LOTS of people would be tempted to, because they think that "it would make for" is some sort of "passive" construction that must be avoided at all costs.)

I believe that many of these egregious howlers are precipitated* by the crazy Rules For Writing that are now taught all over the place. (Note the use of the passive voice to avoid naming the wicked who teach this stuff--great dodge.) Rules such as "never use passive anythings" and "put the action up front in the sentence." Feh!

* It's raining.

** If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.