Friday, January 16, 2009

Placement of modifiers (3)

As demonstrated in two previous posts (1), (2), clear writing requires correct placement of modifiers. Fortunately, the rules for placement of modifiers boil down to one simple rule. Here it is:

So far as possible, place modifiers where the reader expects them to be – that is, close to what they modify.

In other words, the placement of modifiers is a matter of common sense. It is a matter of empathy. The greater the separation (as measured in the number of words) between a modifier and what it modifies, the greater the risk of distracting and confusing the reader.

And there is one other factor – besides the separation – that determines the risk of distracting and confusing the reader. This factor is the plausibility of the wrong construction; that is to say, if the reader associates the modifier with the wrong word or phrase, how plausible will that association be?

Here are two examples that demonstrate the point.

EXAMPLE 1: In a travel article in thestar online, we see this paragraph:

“Palmyra was once ruled by Queen Zenobia, a descendant of Cleopatra. She defied Rome and her country was subjugated. All but forgotten, travelers have brought her back to life.”

When the reader reaches the third sentence and encounters the adjectival phrase “All but forgotten,” followed immediately by “travelers,” he assumes (for a moment or two) that “All but forgotten” modifies “travelers.”

But he soon realizes that this assumption is not very plausible. Why would travelers be described as all but forgotten? So the reader looks for some other candidates. He looks back and sees six: “Palmyra,” “Queen Zenobia,” “descendant,” “Cleopatra,” “Rome,” and “country.” The most plausible choice is “Queen Zenobia,” followed by “Palmyra” as a distant second.

So, to be clear, the sentence should read like this, or close to this:

Queen Zenobia [or Palmyra] was nearly forgotten, but travelers have brought her back to life.

EXAMPLE 2: In an electrician’s advertisement on the web, we see these two paragraphs:

“Reactive Electrical Limited, the number 1 Electrician Essex has to offer, is a NICEIC Part “P” approved Domestic Installer offering a full electrical service to domestic, commercial and industrial clients throughout Thurrock in Essex, London and the South East [sic, no period]

“Being part of the Government backed TrustMark Scheme you can be sure of employing a reliable and trustworthy establishment to make improvements and repairs to your property.”

When the reader encounters the participial phrase “Being part of the Government backed TrustMark Scheme,” he assumes temporarily that it modifies the word immediately following it (the pronoun “you”).

Unfortunately for the reader, this incorrect construction is fairly plausible. The reader might logically ask himself, “Did this electrician mean to say that if I am a member of TrustMark, he will be more reliable and trustworthy to me?” Or did he mean to say that his being a member of TrustMark certifies that he is generally more reliable and trustworthy than electricians who are not members?”

The reader might then surf the web and find the TrustMark Scheme’s web site. The web site suggests that the scheme helps homeowners find reliable contractors and obtain good service. So, the reader concludes that it is more plausible that the participial phrase modifies “Reactive Electrical Limited” than “you.”

I would suggest the following revision:

Reactive Electrical Limited is a member of the Government backed TrustMark Scheme. This means you can be sure that Reactive Electrical Limited is a reliable and trustworthy establishment for making improvements and repairs to your property.

The wrong construction was more plausible in Example 2 than in Example 1. Therefore, the reader is more likely to become confused, and to stay confused longer, in Example 2. Therefore the writing in Example 1 is clearer (more precisely, less unclear).

The Takeaway: The correct placement of modifiers is easy. As you write, always try to place modifiers close to what they modify. As you edit, look for places where the reader could easily construe the wrong word or phrase as the thing modified.

Placement of modifiers (1)
Placement of modifiers (2)

1 comment:

  1. Of course, dangling modifiers can be really amusing.
    Here is a good example: "The patient was referred to a psychologist with several emotional problems."
    It doesn't get funnier than that!