Modifiers everywhere

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GRAMMAR
By Brandie Bohney

I’ve had a few experiences recently with misplaced or dangling modifiers. I’ve covered modifier placement before, but misplaced and dangling modifiers never cease to provide hilarious fodder for columns.

Recently I heard a woman on TV say, “I remember my mom making pancakes as a kid.” The first thing I wanted to ask was how she remembers her mother’s childhood. I’m guessing very few people were present during their own parents’ childhoods. None, as a matter of fact. But the way the sentence is organized, with the modifier (as a kid) directly after the phrase my mom making pancakes, the meaning becomes she remembers her mother making pancakes during her mother’s childhood.

That just doesn’t make sense.

Modifiers need to be placed directly next to – either before or after – the word, phrase or clause they are modifying. And when there is another word, phrase or clause the modifier could modify (logically or not), the two should be placed as far apart as possible. And remember modifiers themselves can be phrases, clauses or individual words.

Individual word examples:

Rufus only ate his breakfast.

Rufus ate only his breakfast.

Rufus ate his only breakfast.

Moving the word only changes the meaning of the sentence. In the first sentence, only modifies ate, meaning Rufus ate no other meals. In the second sentence, only modifies his, meaning Rufus didn’t eat anyone else’s breakfast (just his own). In the third sentence, only modifies breakfast, meaning Rufus ate his breakfast and was not given the opportunity to eat more than one breakfast.

Phrase examples:

Without a hitch, Barry started eating the pie after finishing the turkey.

Barry started eating the pie after finishing the turkey without a hitch.

In the first sentence, Without a hitch modifies Barry started eating the pie, meaning Barry’s start of eating the pie went well. On the flip side, ending the sentence with without a hitch forces the phrase to modify after finishing the turkey, which means Barry finished the turkey with no problems.

Clause examples:

Wanda wondered what happened to the leftovers after the meal she ate.

Wanda wondered what happened to the leftovers she ate after the meal.

In the first sentence, Wanda ate the meal, and in the second sentence, she ate the leftovers.

Make sure whatever you’re trying to modify is actually what you’re modifying. Otherwise, you might be recalling your mother’s childhood, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want a child her own age.

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