Monday, June 11, 2012

Placement of modifiers (19)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear or embarrassing writing. Here’s a recent example of the careless placement of a modifier:

Not much has been revealed about one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newest projects, the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, and the FBI will probably try to keep it that way. Despite attempting to keep the DCAC largely under wraps, an investigation spearheaded by Cnet’s [sic] Declan McCullagh is quickly collecting details about the agency’s latest endeavor. Source


The second sentence begins with a modifier, the participial phrase “Despite attempting to keep the DCAC largely under wraps.” When a sentence begins with a participial phrase, the reader normally assumes that the participial phrase modifies the next noun or pronoun; in this case, “investigation.”

But when the reader finishes reading this sentence, he recognizes that the sentence is illogical; it suggests that CNET is both hiding and exposing the DCAC.

Here’s one way to fix the sentence:

Despite the FBI’s attempt to hide the DCAC from reporters, CNET’s Declan McCullagh and other reporters have already succeeded in collecting details.

Reading this version, the reader will more easily recognize who is doing what.

The Takeaway: Don’t make your reader work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it. It’s bad manners.

See disclaimer.

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