The case of the misplaced modifier

Attention: The Victoria Airport is pleased to showcase the work of talented local artists in the terminal building. Talented local artists outside the terminal building need not apply.

In my work as an editor, a common error I see is the misplaced modifier. As its name suggests, the modifier is placed incorrectly in the sentence, often creating ambiguity. (The irony is that the term misplaced modifier is itself ambiguous, as misplaced can mean either “incorrectly placed” or “lost.” But I digress.) And this error, as the above image illustrates, is not just common with new writers, but also among those who get paid not to embarrass their clients.

A misplaced modifier can be a word or a phrase. In the VAA signage, the misplaced phrase “in the terminal building” modifies “artists.” But the artists are not in the terminal building, their work is. The sign should read:

The Victoria Airport Authority (VAA) has made a commitment to provide talented local artists with a unique opportunity to showcase their work in the terminal building.

Yet technically even that is a bit ambiguous: are they showcasing work made in/on the terminal building? But the perfectly correct option reads poorly: “The Victoria Airport Authority (VAA) has made a commitment to provide talented local artists with a unique opportunity to showcase, in the terminal building, their work.” As it is, the first correction provides the best balance between clarity and style. And sometimes as a writer that is all you can aim for.

Misplaced modifiers are common in journalism, where writers are often under debilitating deadlines. Consider this one from CTV, about Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman’s conviction on racketeering charges:

her sentence was in connection with two charges she pleaded guilty to in April 2019 which included conspiracy to conceal and harbour people who were not in the U.S. legally for financial gain, as well as fraudulent use of identification.

“For financial gain” modifies “people who were not in the U.S. legally.” What has been written is that the victims were not in the U.S. for financial gain, not that Bronfman acted for financial gain. It should read:

her sentence was in connection with charges she pleaded guilty to in April 2019, which included conspiracy to conceal and harbour illegals for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification.

An example of a single-word misplaced modifier is: “While out shopping I found a silver man’s bracelet.” Here, silver modifies man’s, not bracelet, so the result is that the writer found a bracelet belonging to a silver man. The sentence should read: “While out shopping I found a man’s silver bracelet.”

If you dissect the mistakes, what you will notice is that the problem arises because the modifier is placed away from that which it modifies. One rule of good grammar is to place any modifier as close as possible — ideally immediately before or after — to what is being modified.

Misplaced modifiers most often cause ambiguity, but they can also cause embarrassment or unintended insult. Consider this, my all-time favourite misplaced modifier, from a corporate report I was editing for a friend:

No one will receive any benefits other than Christine.

When I read this out to Christine, we both burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” the author demanded, indignant. “Well,” I replied, “basically it means, ‘You don’t get any dental benefits, but you get to bang my wife.'”

 

 

 

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