Misplaced Modifiers

Consider these passages, which I found in prominent newspapers:

• “Only the pursuit of ‘diversity’ by higher education meets the strict constitutional test for race preferences. As a lawyer, I am sure that Mr. Obama must know this.”

Is the lawyer the writer – or the president-elect?


• “[Jeremy] Piven, who grew up in a Chicago theater family, knew [David] Mamet as a child… .”

Which one was the child?


• “It took three phone calls to find this Dior dress in Elle.”

Were the calls to determine which page of the magazine the garment was on – or to locate the store that carried it?

The above excerpts are examples of the problems caused by misplaced modifiers. They are ambiguous and confusing, which confirms the rule that sloppy writing makes for poor communication.

In The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein offers good advice: “There is no rule about the placement of modifying phrases excerpt perhaps the very general one that they should be as close as possible to the things they modify.” Applying this simple guideline often solves the problem. To convey what the writer probably meant, the first example could be reworded this way: “I am sure that Mr. Obama, a lawyer, must know this.”

I’m a lifelong blooper collector, so I especially relish misplaced modifiers that produce unintentionally amusing results. A classic example from a commercial in a live radio broadcast years ago: “Ladies, now you can buy a bathing suit for a ridiculous figure.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.