Monday, June 7, 2010

Placement of modifiers (11)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Place your modifiers as close as possible to what they modify. Don’t make your readers rely on interpretation or guesswork.

Example of the careless placement of a modifier

A recent essay discusses the career of talk-show host Glenn Beck. The essay contains this sentence:

“Much like the Founding Fathers, I believe Beck has committed himself to using his fame, his fortune and his enormous talents to help defeat the poisonous progressive movement that is fundamentally transforming the United States into a destitute socialist nation.”

Critique of the example

The reader immediately becomes confused when he sees that the adverbial phrase “Much like the Founding Fathers” does not modify the nearest verb: believe. For if it did modify believe, it would imply that the author is saying that what he believes about Glenn Beck is what the Founding Fathers believed about Glenn Beck. But Mr. Beck was born after the Founding Fathers had died.

So the reader tries the next verb: has committed. This interpretation would imply that the author is saying that the Founding Fathers tried to help defeat the progressive movement. But the progressive movement began in the early 20th century, after the Founding Fathers had died. Another anachronism.

Anachronism also eliminates the third, fourth and fifth verbs: using (gerund), to help defeat, and is … transforming, respectively, which are all subordinate to has committed.

Nor does the adverbial phrase modify the
adverb (fundamentally) or any of the adjectives (enormous, poisonous, progressive, united, destitute, and socialist).

At this point, the reader tries some psychology and intuition; he asks himself, Why is this author comparing the Founding Fathers with Glenn Beck? What did he seize on, as a point of comparison, however tenuous, that prompted him to write this dopey sentence?

The reader pauses on the word fortune. It is the second noun in a three-noun series: fame, fortune, talents. Dum-de-dum, fortune, dum-de-dum. Ah, there it is! The author is alluding to the Declaration of Independence, in which the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and honor to each other in support of their cause.* Mr. Beck is committing his fame, fortune and talents to his cause.

And so, after having spent a lot more time deciphering the sentence than the author probably spent writing it, the reader guesses that the author meant to say something like this:

The Founding Fathers seceded from the British monarchy and formed a new government; Glenn Beck is trying to help defeat the progressive movement. The Founding Fathers used rifles; Glenn Beck is using his mouth. They pledged their lives, fortunes and honor; he’s committing his fortune (not his life or honor).

The Takeaway:
Place every modifier so that readers can easily identify what you intend to modify and what you do not intend to modify. Making your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it is bad manners; your readers will judge you on it.

See disclaimer.

*“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

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