Friday, August 23, 2013

On Misplaced Modifiers

On our second day of orientation, the new batch of English graduate assistants working in the writing center[1] this year took the grammar section of the College Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST). The test was brief, 40 questions in all, and self-graded. Taking the test served several functions, not least of which was to quickly check any budding egos. The main reasons were to provide the graduate assistants with a heads up on their own grammatical miscues and to prepare them for forthcoming questions from students.

While many of the questions on the test were discussed, one in particular frustrated me to no end, causing me to think about nothing else for the rest of the orientation, and to continue speaking about the subject over the weekend until my girlfriend threatened to brain me with the nearest blunt object if I didn’t shut up.

The test directions were to “Choose the sentence that expresses the thought most clearly and effectively and that has no errors in structure.” The question focused on misplaced modifiers, and went as follows:

A.      John left the classroom immediately after the last speech.
B.      John immediately left the classroom after the last speech.
C.      Immediately, John left the classroom after the last speech.

The author chose answer “B.” To his great consternation, the correct answer is “A.” While both answers are grammatically sound, the people of CLAST apparently believe that A expresses the thought most clearly and effectively.  In an attempt to decipher the logic behind the answer, the author and other assistants came to the conclusion that A comes closest to how people actually speak. This in itself is a satisfactory answer, except that it touches on a long-standing grammar debate between “prescriptivists” and “descriptivists,” the two camps fighting over the very nature of the English language in a winner-take-all battle.[2].

As a rule of thumb, you want to have the modifier as close as possible to whatever is being modified in order to avoid confusion. The prescriptivist Brian Garner provides some great examples of misplaced modifiers, including ‘“Both died in an apartment Dr. Kevorkian was leasing after inhaling carbon dioxide.”’[3] In this example, the writer means that the people died after inhaling carbon dioxide. However, due to misplaced modifiers, the sentence gives the impression that Dr. Kevorkian leased the apartment after inhaling carbon dioxide. A rewrite that erases the confusion would be “Both died after inhaling carbon dioxide in an apartment Dr. Kevorkian was leasing.” Note that the modifier (inhaling carbon dioxide) is much closer to the verb being modified (died) in the rewrite.

Originally, I thought A was not the best choice because it placed the modifier (immediately) further away from what was being modified (left). It turns out, dear reader, that I was hopelessly incorrect! In A, "immediately" is not modifying "left" at all. Instead, "immediately" is acting as a qualifier for the adverbial preposition "after the last speech." 

There are some interesting differences between qualifiers and modifiers, but that will have to be taken up in another post. However, here is another example of a qualifier (with some hip lingo thrown in): "That kid is wicked smart!" In this example, "wicked" is acting as a qualifier for the adjective "smart." How smart is the kid? The kid is wicked smart. 

Alright, I have one last thing to say about modifiers. Another common mistake is what is referred to as a "squinting" modifier. Take for example the sentence, "The tugboat chugged along noisily blowing its whistle." It is unclear whether the adverb "noisily" refers to the tugboat chugging along or to the tugboat blowing its whistle.

All of that is to say, choosing where to place the sentence’s modifiers carefully avoids confusion.[4]

Author's Note: I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Dr. Shonk, who provided much needed guidance with this post. He also came up with the tugboat example. 

[1] Please come visit us. If you don’t, we’ll spend all of our time talking about inane subjects like whether Mark Twain was a briefs or boxers sort of guy. (The author posits boxer-briefs).
[2] I’m stealing this from a great essay by David Foster Wallace titled “Authority and American Usage,” but suffice it to say that a “prescriptivist” would be someone like your middle school grammar teacher who circled every sentence ending with a preposition with a red felt pen in a paper you handed in before drawing frowny-faces in the margins. A “descriptivist,” on the other hand, would be someone like your middle school art teacher who told you that the most important thing in the world was to express your own, special and totally unique soul in whatever way your heart desired.Or, as Dr. Shonk explained, a prescriptivist is someone who explains "how" something should be said, while a descriptivist is someone who explains "what" is actually said.
[3] Garner, Brian. Modern American Usage. 3rd Edition. 540. Oxford UP, 2009.
[4] See my point?

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