41 Identifying Clarity Issues
Dr. Karen Palmer
Consider this sentence: “For her birthday, Megan received an attractive woman’s briefcase.” The modifier “attractive” is in an awkward position. The person who wrote this sentence most likely intended to suggest that the briefcase was attractive. However, people reading it or listening to it might easily assume that the briefcase was intended for (or already belonged to) an attractive woman. This is because the modifier, “attractive” is located in the wrong place in the sentence—it is misplaced.
A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that clarifies or describes another word, phrase, or clause. Sometimes writers use modifiers incorrectly, leading to strange and unintentionally humorous sentences. If any of these errors occurs, readers can no longer read smoothly. Instead, they become stumped trying to figure out what the writer meant to say. A writer’s goal must always be to communicate clearly and to avoid distracting the reader with strange sentences or awkward sentence constructions. The good news is that these errors can be easily overcome.
Three categories of modifier problems include misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and split infinitives. These three categories, explained in the following subsections, are all similar because they all involve misplacing words or phrases. Understanding the differences between these categories should help you be on the lookout for such mistakes in your writing and that of your peers.
A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is placed too far from the word or words it modifies. Misplaced modifiers make the sentence awkward and sometimes unintentionally humorous.
Incorrect: She wore a bicycle helmet on her head that was too large.
Correct: She wore a bicycle helmet that was too large on her head.
- Notice in the incorrect sentence it sounds as if her head was too large! Of course, the writer is referring to the helmet, not to the person’s head. The corrected version of the sentence clarifies the writer’s meaning.
The easiest way to clarify which word is being modified in a sentence is to place the modifier close to the word it modifies. Whenever possible, it is best to place a modifier immediately before or after the modified word.
Look at the following two examples:
Incorrect: They bought a kitten for my brother they call Shadow.
Correct: They bought a kitten they call Shadow for my brother.
- In the incorrect sentence, it seems that the brother’s name is Shadow. That’s because the modifier is too far from the word it modifies, which is kitten.
Incorrect: The patient was referred to the physician with stomach pains.
Correct: The patient with stomach pains was referred to the physician.
- The incorrect sentence reads as if it is the physician who has stomach pains! What the writer means is that the patient has stomach pains.
Simple modifiers like only, almost, just, nearly, and barely often get used incorrectly because writers often stick them in the wrong place.
Confusing: Tyler almost found fifty cents under the sofa cushions.
Repaired: Tyler found almost fifty cents under the sofa cushions.
- How do you almost find something? Either you find it or you do not. The repaired sentence is much clearer.
A dangling modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes something that has been left out of the sentence. When there is nothing that the word, phrase, or clause can modify, the modifier is said to dangle.
Incorrect: Riding in the sports car, the world whizzed by rapidly.
Correct: As Jane was riding in the sports car, the world whizzed by rapidly.
- In the incorrect sentence, riding in the sports car is dangling. The reader is left wondering who is riding in the sports car. The writer must tell the reader!
Often a dangling modifier modifies the subject of a sentence, but the placement of the modifier makes it seem as though it modifies another noun in the sentence. Other times, a dangling modifier actually modifies someone or something other than the subject of the sentence, but the wording makes it appear as though the dangling modifier modifies the subject. The resulting image conveyed can often be rather confusing, humorous, or just embarrassing.
Incorrect: Walking home at night, the trees looked like spooky aliens.
Correct: As Jonas was walking home at night, the trees looked like spooky aliens.
Correct: The trees looked like spooky aliens as Jonas was walking home at night.
- In the incorrect sentence walking home at night is dangling. Who is walking home at night? Jonas. Note that there are two different ways the dangling modifier can be corrected.
Incorrect: To win the spelling bee, Luis and Gerard should join our team.
Correct: If we want to win the spelling bee this year, Luis and Gerard should join our team.
- In the incorrect sentence, to win the spelling bee is dangling. Who wants to win the spelling bee? We do!
The following three steps will help you quickly spot a dangling modifier:
1. Look for an -ing modifier at the beginning of your sentence or another modifying phrase:
Painting for three hours at night, the kitchen was finally finished by Maggie. (Painting is the -ing modifier.)
2. Underline the first noun that follows it:
Painting for three hours at night, the kitchen was finally finished by Maggie.
3. Make sure the modifier and noun go together logically. If they do not, it is very likely you have a dangling modifier.
After identifying the dangling modifier, rewrite the sentence.
Painting for three hours at night, Maggie finally finished the kitchen.
Splitting infinitives refers to placing a word between “to” and a verb, as in “Miss Clark set out to clearly define the problem.” Technically, you should not place the word “clearly” between “to” and “define.”
This grammar rule came about in the eighteenth century when people held Latin up as the language standard. Since Latin did not have two-word infinitives, such as “to define,” grammarians wanted to preserve the unity of the two-word infinitives in an effort to make English more Latin-like.
The use of split infinitives, however, has become increasingly common over the decades (e.g., “to boldly go where no man has gone before”—Star Trek, 1966). In fact, split infinitives are gaining acceptance in professional and academic writing as well. For your purposes, knowing what split infinitives are will help you know your options as a writer.
Incorrect: I’m going to quickly run to the store so I’ll be back when you get home.
Infinitive link: “to run”
Splitter link: “quickly”
Correct: I’m going to run to the store quickly so I’ll be back when you get home.
Preventing Mixed Constructions
Switching grammatical direction midway through a sentence can result in writing mixed constructions, which make a sentence difficult to understand. Mixed constructions often take place when you start out a sentence with a thought, shift your thinking midway through it, and then fail to reread your completed or revised thought upon completing the sentence.
Another common cause of mixed constructions is the revision process itself, especially as it occurs in word processing. When you are proofreading and making changes, it is easy to change a part of a sentence without realizing that the change does not mesh with the rest of the construction. Sometimes mixed construction sentences can be fixed by moving words around, adding words to the sentence, or both. Other times, the best repair is to turn the sentence into two or more sentences.
Look at the following examples of mixed constructions, and consider the confusion that could result.
Stripping, sanding, and painting, I will turn this chest into a real treasure.
Stripping, sanding, and painting this chest will turn it into a real treasure.
This chest will turn into a real treasure once I’ve stripped, sanded, and painted it.
Here’s another example:
Although the swimmers practiced twice a day, lost their first six meets.
Although the swimmers practiced twice a day, the team still lost its first six meets.
The swimmers practiced twice a day, but the team still lost its first six meets.
1. Rewrite the following the sentences to correct the dangling modifiers.
- Bent over backward, the posture was very challenging.
- Making discoveries about new creatures, this is an interesting time to be a biologist.
- Walking in the dark, the picture fell off the wall.
- Playing a guitar in the bedroom, the cat was seen under the bed.
- Packing for a trip, a cockroach scurried down the hallway.
- While looking in the mirror, the towel swayed in the breeze.
- While driving to the veterinarian’s office, the dog nervously whined.
- The priceless painting drew large crowds when walking into the museum.
- Piled up next to the bookshelf, I chose a romance novel.
- Chewing furiously, the gum fell out of my mouth.
1. Correct the following sentences.
- The young lady was walking the dog on the telephone.
- I heard that there was a robbery on the evening news.
- Uncle Louie bought a running stroller for the baby that he called “Speed Racer.”
- Rolling down the mountain, the explorer stopped the boulder with his powerful foot.
- We are looking for a babysitter for our precious six-year-old who doesn’t drink or smoke and owns a car.
- The teacher served cookies to the children wrapped in aluminum foil.
- The mysterious woman walked toward the car holding an umbrella.
- We returned the wine to the waiter that was sour.
- Charlie spotted a stray puppy driving home from work.
- I ate nothing but a cold bowl of noodles for dinner.
1. Each of the following sentences has a misplaced modifier, dangling modifier, or split infinitive. Identify each occurrence and then rewrite the sentences to eliminate the modifier problems and the split infinitives.
- While eating lunch, a mouse ran by my foot.
- A kid ran by, leading a bulldog wearing a ball uniform.
- Alex decided to calmly ask for a raise.
- Hopping around the backyard, I saw a tiny bunny.
- While typing my paper, the computer froze.
2. Rewrite these sentences to eliminate the mixed constructions:
- After the Bears won the basketball game, because they played their best ball of the season.
- Whether in online or face-to-face classes, therefore college students can benefit from a teacher-free discussion area.
- Police work requires an ability to handle difficult situations will probably do well in this type of work.
3. Rewrite the following paragraph correcting all the misplaced and dangling modifiers.
I bought a fresh loaf of bread for my sandwich shopping in the grocery store. Wanting to make a delicious sandwich, the mayonnaise was thickly spread. Placing the cold cuts on the bread, the lettuce was placed on top. I cut the sandwich in half with a knife turning on the radio. Biting into the sandwich, my favorite song blared loudly in my ears. Humming and chewing, my sandwich went down smoothly. Smiling, my sandwich will be made again, but next time I will add cheese.
- Content adapted from “Chapter 15: Sentence Building” and licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Content adapted from Writing for Success and licensed under CC BY NC SA.