Monday, June 8, 2009

Placement of modifiers (5)

Clear writing requires, among many other things, the correct placement of modifiers. Incorrect modifier placement can confuse your readers. It can also introduce unintentional humor into your writing – making you look foolish.

Here’s an example, from today’s Wall Street Journal:

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

“The [Supreme Court] turned down a challenge to the Pentagon policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, granting a request by the Obama administration.”

The writer has placed the adverb “openly” immediately following the gerund “serving.” By placing it there, he indicates that “openly” modifies “serving.”

Therefore the writer is stating that the Pentagon allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military, but not to serve openly. That is, gays and lesbians must not do or say anything that could reveal or acknowledge that they are serving in the military.

One expects that this policy would be difficult to apply in practice:

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad.”

“Welcome home, Son. You look so healthy. How was basic training?”

“Mom, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Basic training. You know. The Army.”


“We drove you to Fort Dix. Don’t you remember?”

“Just don’t ask me about this, OK?”

“You were so brave when you ‘came out to us.’ And you know we gave you our full support then, and we still do. Why are you afraid to talk about something as mundane as the Army?”

“I said, just drop it.”

The Takeaway: Respect your readers; place every modifier close to the word being modified. Your correct modifier placement will greatly increase the clarity of your writing. It will also help you avoid introducing unintentional humor.

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