Thursday, July 7, 2011

Placement of modifiers (14)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear (and annoying) writing. Don’t make your readers rely on interpretation or guesswork.

Example of the careless placement of a modifier

An article in the Los Angeles Times includes this sentence:

“Drivers who cause accidents in at least 50 cities can be billed for the police and firefighters who show up.”

The reader chuckles and thinks:

“I can’t imagine a driver actually becoming liable for one of these bills. He would have to have caused at least 50 accidents – at least one accident in each of 50 cities – before he would become liable. To reach this highly unlikely achievement, a driver would have to have survived 50 accidents; have made 50 auto repairs or replacements (or have stolen his cars); have paid high insurance premiums for driving without insurance; have probably spent time in prison for repeat offenses such as driving without a license, grand theft auto, reckless endangerment, assault and battery with a motor vehicle, and vehicular homicide.”

Then the reader may stop chuckling and think:

“Perhaps this fool meant to write, “In at least 50 cities, drivers who cause accidents can be billed for the police and firefighters who show up.”

The Takeaway: Place every modifier carefully. When a modifier is a phrase, construct the phrase carefully. Making your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it is indolent and rude. Your readers may resent you for it. Or, if you are lucky, they may only laugh at you.

See disclaimer.

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