Thursday, June 20, 2013

Placement of modifiers (23)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Here’s an example, from a recent article in an economics newsletter:

Feds Sidestep Sherman Antitrust Act

Sold as free and “fair” market legislation, President Harrison signed the Sherman Antitrust act into law. It aimed to dissolve monopolies like Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, and other dominant companies in industries of the 19th century.
(Source not available online.)

Let’s follow a typical intelligent reader’s mental processes as he reads:

The reader recognizes the first word, “Sold,” as a past participle; therefore he expects that the phrase will turn out to be an adjectival phrase modifying the first noun or pronoun after the phrase, and that the noun or pronoun will be the subject of the sentence.

Then the reader arrives at the word “legislation” and notes the comma following it. He now knows that he has read the whole adjectival phrase. On the other side of that comma will be the thing that had been “Sold as free and ‘fair’ market legislation.” And that thing is... President Harrison!

That doesn’t make sense, so the reader backs up to the beginning of the sentence and re-reads:

Sold as free and “fair” market legislation, President Harrison...

The reader recognizes that the modifier is misplaced and that the noun or pronoun modified will appear later in the sentence.

Later the reader arrives at

“the Sherman Antitrust act”

and mentally rewrites the sentence to read:

Sold as free and “fair” market legislation, the Sherman Antitrust Act was signed into law by President Harrison.

Although he has read only one sentence of the article, the reader suspects that the writer is either ill-educated (i.e., he didn’t learn his grammar) or careless (i.e., he did learn his grammar but he doesn’t consistently apply it). If he sees more errors, the reader may stop reading the article and may even make a mental note to stop reading that writer.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Forcing your readers to mentally correct your grammar is unprofessional and inconsiderate.

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