Monday, November 30, 2009

Placement of modifiers (9)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. When you place a modifier carelessly, you force your readers to guess what you mean to modify.

If you force them to do that, many readers will conclude that you are inconsiderate, indolent or stupid. Don’t take the risk; do it right.

Here’s a good example of careless placement of a modifier.


When the Telegraph (UK) covered the recent gatecrashing at the White House, the report included this sentence:

“The couple, described as aspiring reality TV stars and polo-playing socialites, were photographed arriving at the White House.”

Almost all readers will conclude that “aspiring” is meant to modify the phrase “reality TV stars,” because the phrase immediately follows the modifier. This conclusion will almost certainly be correct.

However, many readers will be unsure about “polo-playing socialites.” When a modifier precedes two phrases separated by and, the modifier usually is meant to modify both phrases.

But the context here suggests that “aspiring” does not modify “polo-playing socialites.” The context implies that the gatecrashers (pictured) are already “polo-playing socialites” and are aspiring to become “reality TV stars” in addition. In other words, it implies that they have time on their hands, that they pass the time giving lavish parties and riding expensive horses, and that they would like to add a third social-climbing pastime.

If that is true, and if the Telegraph reporter knew it, he should have written this, or something like this:

The couple, described as polo-playing socialites and aspiring reality TV stars, were photographed arriving at the White House.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier so that the reader can easily identify what you intend to modify and what you do not intend to modify. Don’t make your readers work harder to read the sentence than you worked to write it.

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