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.]