Sunday, April 26, 2015

Words Need to Find Their Place, Part 4

In this final post on misplaced or dangling modifiers, we'll look at ambiguous meanings appearing at the end of the sentence, as we already looked at problems in the beginning and middle of sentences. This is the sample sentence:
Carol works the late shift with pleasure, usually.
The word usually just hangs at the end without a clear reference, as we are left wondering whether it refers to Carol's work shift or to her pleasure. Here are two improvements to the sentence:

  • Carol usually works the late shift, and she enjoys it.
  • Carol usually enjoys working the late shift.
Remembering to edit for this common sentence problem will sharpen the clarity of your message, so be on the lookout for unintended meanings.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Words Need to Find Their Place, Part 3

The previous WORDS ON THE LINE post showed how and why misplaced modifiers appear in sentence beginnings. In this post, I'll explain how and why they show up in the middle of sentences. Here is our sample: 
The manager told me frequently to break.
The problematic modifier is frequently because this adverb is trapped between two verbs, told and to break, either of which it can modify. Did the manager tell me frequently to take a break once, or did he tell me once to take a break more than once? The fix is to get the adverb as far away as possible from the verb it does not modify. Depending on what the writer intended, either of these sentences would be clearer:
  • The manager frequently told me to break.
  • The manager told me to break frequently.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Words Need to Find Their Place, Part 2

Since words and phrases can be misplaced in the beginning, middle, or ending of a sentence, we will look at these one at a time because reveal different writing problems.

Here is an example of a confusing sentence caused by a misplaced idea in the opening: Directing the project expertly, the staff thanked Ms. Davis.

The sentence says that the staff directed the project expertly, but a reader would infer that Ms. Davis directed the project expertly since she was receiving their appreciation. Two better ways of writing the sentence would be:

  • Since Ms. Davis directed the project expertly, she was thanked by the staff.
  • The staff thanked Ms. Davis for directing the project expertly.
When we place dependent phrases or clauses in the beginning of sentences, we need to make sure they are next to the word they modify.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Words Need to Find Their Place, Part 1

Words and phrases in the wrong place can create unintended meaning, which can cause laughter at best but a potential lawsuit at worst. Grammarians call this problem dangling or misplaced modifiers.

Consider this example of a misplaced word: In my office, more men wear earrings than women. Are you picturing the bizarre image of some men wearing women around the office? The sentence makes more sense this way: In my office, more men than women wear earrings.

But sometimes the image is not comical at all and can lead to a litigious situation. Take this case from a municipal government manager's test: Jim was cautioned for not sweeping the corridors on several occasions. In a progressive disciplinary context, he should receive:
A. a verbal warning
B. a written warning
C. a formal probationary notice
D. a termination notice

The tester wanted the choice of B, believing that the employee was cautioned on several occasions, but the sentence says that he was cautioned only once for not sweeping the corridors more than once. Someone who noticed the flawed thinking in the test question, and who failed the test by one point, successfully filed a grievance, exposing either the linguistic ineptness or editorial laziness of the tester.

The point is simple: the position of words in a sentence can make a big difference in the intended meaning. More about this in the next three posts.