Course 1: Lesson 2

Modifying Words

          In grammar school, most of us were subjected to specifically defined concepts like misplaced modifiers, faulty phrases, elliptical clauses, and dangling participles. Most of us moved through the system without a clue as to the definition of a participle, so we had no chance of entering adult life knowing when those participles dangled. The reason for our ignorance was our failure to grasp the essence of what we should be communicating via the written word. Instead, we focused on memorizing rules. Let us examine the essence of the concept of using proper modifiers.

          Regardless of your age, imagine yourself in the high school cafeteria at lunch hour, sitting among friends, and discussing your leisure time and future plans. We have all enjoyed that experience. Many of us love to travel, but have not had the time to visit places we long to see.

          Now, imagine that Bill, one of your fellow students, has recently returned from vacation and begins to relate his experiences. It is a wonderful discussion, and you dream of going to many of the places Bill has visited.

          Next, picture yourself years later as a serious college student or busy professional seeking a degree that will further your advancement at your dream job with your perfect company. I, of course, am your writing instructor. Your assignment for the next class is to write a short essay about a personal experience. You are still dreaming of Bill’s adventure and decide it is a great topic for your assignment. You fail to realize, however, that I was not part of your lunch group years earlier. I did not hear Bill tell his story. I have absolutely no knowledge of your friend Bill, where he went, when he got there, or what he did when he arrived. I now pick up your essay to read and grade your paper and I feast my eyes on your first line:

          Bill told me about his trip to Europe during his lunch hour.

          I am thrilled. I cannot wait to hear the story about how this person traveled all the way to Europe in one hour and returned in time to attend his high school classes that afternoon. It takes me an hour just to drive thirty miles to work in the morning. This young man made the trip across the ocean and back in sixty minutes and had a great vacation. Wow!

           Huh? That is not what you meant? Am I obligated to figure out that Bill did not travel during his lunch hour? I certainly am not. Must I decipher your coded paper that indicates Bill was relating his story while you were enjoying your lunch? Absolutely not. It is always the writer’s responsibility to communicate the correct message to the reader, not the other way around. The opening sentence of your essay should have read:

          During his lunch hour, Bill told me about his trip to Europe.

          The essence of the sentence is the fact that your old high school classmate told his story. The preliminary phrase, set off from the sentence by the appropriate comma, puts the conversation into a time period. The modifying language used in your sentence had been misplaced in your essay. It allowed for more than one interpretation. It is the writer’s responsibility to communicate the singular meaning with clarity.

          Let us try another example. 

          Suppose you are waiting for your college professor to arrive at the classroom one evening. Of course, I am the professor. While you are waiting, you observe two immature young men sitting in the front row of seats. They are horsing around. One of them has a book of matches. They are taking turns lighting the matches and tossing them into the trash basket. Suddenly, one of the matches ignites some paper in the basket. You quickly put the fire out, express your disapproval of their actions, and return to your seat.

          When I finally arrive, I smell the smoke residue and inquire as to what happened. I ask you to write me a short note explaining the incident. Apparently, you do not realize I did not personally observe the incident. You write the note and I begin to read it at home later that evening. To my dismay, the note reads:

          Two men in a trash basket started a fire.

          I now have a visual. These two immature people climbed into the trash basket together. While they were standing in the basket, they started a fire.

          Huh? That is not what you meant to say? Am I obligated to figure out what you meant? No way. It is the writer’s responsibility to communicate the accurate meaning to the reader, not the other way around. Your note should have read:

          Two men started a fire in the trash basket.

Then, I could recognize the location of the fire. I also could recognize the origin of the fire. The guesswork has been removed from the sentence. There is only one meaning.

          Obviously, these examples are silly, but they do accurately describe a typical writing error. When we use language to modify our ideas, we are obligated to place that language into each sentence in the appropriate spot so as not to confuse the reader. Professionals and students alike must make their written communications clear.

          Consider the following sentence:

          He nearly kicked the football twenty feet.

Did he miss the ball, or did he kick it nineteen feet? This sentence has two possible meanings. The writer probably intended to say:

          He kicked the football nearly twenty feet.

Now the meaning is clear.

          Look at two more confusing sentences:

          Trying as hard as he could to swim to shore, Grant’s father called him.

Who was swimming to shore? Grant’s father? It would appear that way because the writer misplaced the modifying words trying as hard as he could to swim to shore. They appear to be modifying Grant’s father, not Grant.

          Again, look at the following sentence:

          After waiting outside the movie theater for an hour, the usher announced that the movie was sold out.

Why was the usher waiting outside the movie theater for an hour before his announcement? He wasn’t. The writer clearly tells the reader that someone waited for an hour, but dangles the modifying phrase out there for the reader to ponder.

          The writers of both sentences above left the readers confused. Perhaps, the following would be more accurate re-writes of the above sentences, leaving the readers with much clearer pictures:

          Trying as hard as he could to swim to shore, Grant heard his father calling him.

          After I waited outside the movie theater for an hour, the usher announced that the movie was sold out.

          Get the picture?

          The writer of this sentence surely confused his readers:

          The murderer threatened to kill him often.

Should the reader be free to believe the victim was capable of being killed many times? The writer misplaced the modifying word often. The clear sentence is:

          The murderer often threatened to kill him.

          In the next sentence, the writer is again unclear:

          Kyle offered to drive Sally to work yesterday.

Did Kyle make the offer yesterday, or did he plan to use a time machine to transport Sally back to the preceding day? The sentence should read:

          Yesterday, Kyle offered to drive Sally to work.

          Imagine what a reader must be thinking when a serious writer misplaces a modifying phrase like this one:

          Gloria pointed out the poisonous fish to her friend in the fish tank.

Obviously, the fish was in the tank, not the friend. A better sentence would be:

          Gloria pointed out the poisonous fish in the fish tank to her friend.

          Suffice it to say the serious and focused writer has an edge if he or she realizes the essence of modifiers is to relate one clear meaning to the reader. For those of us without a terrific grasp of the rules of English grammar, this concept cures a world of ills. The writer who discovers more than one possible meaning in his writing must correct his work to convey the singular meaning to the reader.

          Look at the next sentence:

          I bought a mobile home from an old woman with a new battery.

          By now, it is easy to see the error of slipshod writing. The application of a few concepts can make a vast difference in the perception of the reader. Clarity makes reading a pleasure.  


          Carelessly misplaced modifiers pose nightmares to employers and college professors obligated to read hundreds of papers in a single sitting. It is simply a fact-of-life. A well-written communication has a much better chance of yielding positive results.

          Have you ever written a sentence like this one?

          The pilot with no lights did not see the runway.

           Clarify your modifying words to convey a clear picture to the reader. If your words can be interpreted more than one way, re-write them.