Meddling Modifiers

Spineless Descriptivists in Birkenstocks suggest that to experience high dudgeon at the sight of a split infinitive is to commit low superstition. Bootlicking Turbo-Purists with dyspepsia have diagnosed that the absence of undergoing a real medical event at the sight of a postposition is indicative of an even greater mental illness. A healthy Centrist consensus seems to reign, however, that to misplace a modifier is to burden the reader’s senses with a solecism equal to that of a grammatical flatulence. 

Modifier is an attributive word that, through description or elaboration, either augments or restricts the meaning of a head noun. Modifiers also manifest in the phrasal form, and they must be as close as possible to whatever they describe or elaborate. If this rule be not observed, sentences will often be awkward, confusing, or downright illogical. 

Firstly, there are misplaced modifying words:

Looking out of the window, Saoirse saw the grey neighbor’s cat.

Unless Saoirse or her neighbor desperately needs to see a doctor, it is likely that what Saoirse saw was actually the neighbor’s grey cat.

Contorting one’s limbs quickly damages one’s joints. 

This one’s called a Squinting Modifier, as the reader will undoubtedly squint when attempting to deduce which thing the modifier is attempting to modify. 

It is imagined by yours truly that contorting one’s limbs at any speed is likely a detriment to one’s joint health. And, as this sentence is very likely implying that same notion, a better construction might appear thusly:

Contorting one’s limbs damages one’s joints quickly.

Known recidivists are the adverbs just and only

Did Saoirse “just misidentify the cat’s color?” or did Saoirse “misidentify just the cat’s color?”

But that’s not the only problem.

Is “only contorting one’s limbs damaging to one’s joints?” or is “contorting one’s limbs damaging only one’s joints?”

Not to mention this naughty conundrum:

Does not Saoirse seem to have pussy issues? Does Saoirse not seem to have pussy issues? Or does Saoirse seem not to have pussy issues? God forbid that Saoirse seem to not have pussy issues. 

Often, modifiers take the form of participials, a verbal form that is used as an adjective that most often ends in -ing (present participial) or -ed (past participial).

If not for watching Jerry Seinfeld’s soporific Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, we would be under the assumption that the comedians were experiencing something of a wild ride. But the comedians, not the cars, are the ones getting coffee. 

Misplaced Modifier errors also frequently arise in the phrasal form (prepositional phrases, adverbial phrases, et cetera).

Consider the curious case of Dr. James Berry:

“Historians have been kept guessing over claims that Dr. James Berry, Inspector General of Military Hospitals, was, in fact, a woman for more than 140 years.”

Either these are some rather unobserving historians, or that’s quite an age to begin the old-fashioned gender crisis.  

It is exceedingly likely, however, that indeed it was not Dr. James Berry, but rather the aforementioned historians who had spent the last 140 years guessing. 

The largest error of the phrasal kind is what is known as a Dangling Modifier or Unattached Participial. These are participial phrases that, before the subject appears, intend to describe or modify something about the subject of that sentence. One can achieve this by dropping the subject from one of the two sentences and compressing those two sentences into one. Written properly, modifying phrases quickly establish causal relation, whilst simultaneously providing concision and style. Written improperly, modifying phrases, as Kingsley Amis wrote in his book The King’s English, make readers “pause without profit,” spending extra time evaluating the sentence to understand the logic of what’s being said, likely adding further inaccuracy. This is when we encounter the stench of what Kingsley Amis called “a real solecism.” Get a whiff of this:

“Being a vegan bisexual who’s into Nicaraguan coffee picking and boiler suits, you could safely assume that I vote Labour.”

That’s news to me. Here, the solecism is that the modifying phrase beginning with “being” describes “you” instead of “I,” rendering this sentence as particularly presumptive. Modifying phrases need always be directly before the subject that they describe.

“While serving in the RAF in North Africa (sic) the cockroaches and other creatures…”

Those are rather harsh sobriquets for one’s fighting men and women. 

“Driving near home recently, a thick pall of smoke…”

A thick pall of smoke behind the helm of a motor vehicle? 

All credible sources seem to support, however, that some participials that act as marginal prepositions, subordinating conjunctions, or adverbs (considering, assuming, barring), by way of the classic idiomatic thumbs up, create acceptable dangling modifiers:

Considering the situation, Old Slim reckoned that he made out good. 

Assuming this were a typical city, the proportion of happiness to crime seemed unjustly high.

Barring accidents, the bus full of drunk nuns should be home well before Saturday Mass.

For further information or enquires as regards modifiers, please contact my spiritual twin, Tristan Farnon:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s