Careless placement of a modifier can make a sentence unclear.
“A truly unfortunate development is the compulsion to shop among young boys.” (Boldface added.) (Source)
At first the reader thinks that the phrase “among young boys” is an adverbial phrase modifying the nearest verb, “to shop” – meaning that someone (a pedophile?) wants to go shopping in a crowd of young-boy shoppers.
But then the reader sees a more likely interpretation: “among young boys” is an adjectival phrase modifying “compulsion.” The writer has written a confusing sentence. She should have written this:
A truly unfortunate development is the compulsion among young boys to shop.
Or, less awkwardly,
A truly unfortunate development is that young boys are becoming addicted to shopping.Example
“Daniel Silva delivers another spectacular thriller starring Gabriel Allon, The English Girl.” (Boldface added.) (Source)*
At first the reader thinks that “The English Girl” is in apposition to “Gabriel Allon” – implying that Gabriel Allon is also known as “The English Girl.” This strikes the reader as unlikely.
But then the reader notices the italics and realizes that “The English Girl” is the title of the thriller. The writer should have written:
Daniel Silva delivers another spectacular thriller, The English Girl, starring Gabriel Allon.Example
“May we include literature that helps guide our business in your shipment?” (Boldface added.) (Source: an on-line order form.)
At first the reader assumes that “in your shipment” is an adverbial phrase modifying the nearest verb, “guide.”
But then the reader sees that the phrase more likely modifies the verb “include.” The writer meant to write:
May we include in your shipment literature that helps guide our business?The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Sloppy placement of modifiers forces your readers to guess what you mean. Yes, it’s true that the guessing usually takes only a second or two and usually is successful. However, you should not be forcing your readers to guess at all. If you force them to guess more than a few times, they may become irritated. They may assume you are inconsiderate or stupid or both. They may even become less willing to read anything with your name on it.**
*Thanks to Paul. G. Henning for spotting this example.
**For example, when a writer keeps forcing me to guess, I never read him again unless he’s a paying client.