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8.6 Use modifiers close to words they modify: Mismatched sentence parts

See 8.6 of the Checklist (check that modifiers are close to the words they modify) »
See also 6.1 (sentences clearly express the intended meaning) and 7.3 (avoid relative clauses that compromise clarity) »

Clangers

Mismatched sentence parts – like mismatched body parts in a morgue – can be both confusing and disturbing. They can also sound plain silly: entertaining for the reader but embarrassing for the writer.

Consider these clangers (mismatched parts in italics and bold):

Example 1

As you watch the theatre-like antics of the flaming hot woks sizzling on one of our comfortable bar stools, you soon realise that our shop is an experience on every level.

Example 2

Towaway signs were attached to lamp-posts without telling residents.

Example 3

At three weeks old, surgeons stitched up the duct.

Example 4

The princess attends her first official royal engagement since giving birth at a parade to honour the Queen.

Example 5

Comedian John Smith tells Mike why he has such a cult following in New Zealand after 8am.

Example 6

It was a significant demotion from her former position as shadow minister for ageing in Opposition.

Example 7

Despite having a baby, the cottage is immaculate.

Example 8

The fisherman had selected 52 dolphins to keep alive for sale to aquariums and other customers, including a rare albino calf and its mother.

The problem for writers

Mismatched sentence parts are common in all types of writing. Most writers, no matter how skilled at grammar, get it wrong. But they don’t necessarily realise it at the time.

It usually happens because the writer constructs a sentence without fully thinking through which parts need to go together for the whole to make sense. (See 6.1 of the Checklist: Sentences clearly express the intended meaning.)

Writing long, complex sentences compounds the risk of introducing mismatched parts.

The problem for readers

Syntax, the careful and logical arrangement of sentence parts, helps readers to read fluently.

Mismatched parts risk:

  • damaging the sentence’s logic
  • making the reader work too hard to make sense of the sentence
  • confusing the reader.

Matching parts – How the syntax works

In general, sentences work best when the bits that are connected or closely aligned appear next to each other. Here are ways to avoid some of the most common sentence mismatches:

  • Place any part (whether a phrase or a whole clause) that modifies another part as close to it as possible.
  • Place any part that describes or identifies a noun as close to it as possible.
  • Place any part that identifies the time, place, or method of an action close to it.
  • Place any word that refers or alludes to a person, a thing, a place, or an idea right next to it.
  • Place any qualification of a statement close to the words it qualifies – not in a footnote elsewhere in the document.
  • Remember that a two-noun phrase being modified requires extra care.
  • Make sure each verb has the same number (singular, plural) as its noun.

Here are some specific examples of these issues – as well as suggested fixes.

What is a modifier?

See 8.6 of the Checklist: Use modifiers that are close to the words they modify

A modifier is a word or phrase that adds extra information, most commonly to a noun (person, thing, or idea).

Example 9

a French publication

a publication for French readers / about France / in the French language

a publication that targets French readers

But you can also modify other types of word, such as a verb (with an adverb telling when, where, or how):

Example 10

marches on Saturday

marches to the square

marches triumphantly

Or an adjective (with an adverb telling how much or by what degree):

Example 11

a very offensive statement

this statement is offensive to a high degree

only the green lollies, not the red ones

This extra information always makes the modified word(s) more precise by limiting, restricting, describing, identifying, or enhancing it/them.

Misplaced modifiers

When the modifier gets separated from the thing it modifies, the reader experiences a mental hiccup as they try to work out the connections. In the following examples, the modifier is in bold and the mismatched subject in italics.

Sometimes it’s an easy fix – just reposition the modifier:

Example 12
cross.gif Ever the gentleman, the mayor’s support continued with an email to Grace’s agency.
tick.gif The mayor, ever the gentleman, continued to support Grace with an email to her agency.

Sometimes you need to insert extra information to make the connections work:

Example 13
cross.gif As a young boy, his father murdered his mother.
tick.gif When [named subject] was a young boy, his father murdered his mother.
tick.gif As a young boy, he witnessed his father murder his mother.

And when the modifier gets longer and more complex, the problem is compounded:

Example 14
cross.gif After three years of support, university study, and changing her lifestyle, her 8-year-old daughter was returned to her care.
tick.gif After [named subject] had received three years of support, studied at university, and changed her lifestyle, her 8-year-old daughter was returned to her care.
tick.gif After three years of support, university study, and changing her lifestyle, she had her 8-year-old daughter returned to her care.

Dangling participles – Leaving the reader hanging

See also 6.1 of the Checklist: Sentences clearly express the intended meaning

The problem of misplaced modifiers is compounded when the modifier is a whole clause.

The essential parts of any clause are the subject (“who”) and verb (“does”). Readers expect to see the subject and verb close together – once they know who “does the doing”, the rest of the sentence falls easily into place.

In a modifying clause, the verb is always a participle. That’s the -ing form for active verbs and the -ed form (or occasionally an irregular form such as “given”, “brought”, “learnt”) for passives. Participles attach to the subject of the main clause.

When a participle becomes separated from its subject, it is called a dangling participle. It’s not only the participle that is left dangling, but also the poor reader.

Here is an example of a dangling participle in a fairly simple clause:

Example 15
cross.gif Since joining the Royal Australian Navy more than 30 years ago, times have changed dramatically for Jane.
tick.gif Times have changed dramatically for Jane since she joined the Royal Australian Navy more than 30 years ago.

“Joining” is the verb (participle) of the modifying clause, and “times” is the subject of the main clause. But it’s obviously not times that joined the Navy. It’s Jane, right at the end of the second clause.

Below are more examples of whole-clause modifiers that don’t match the seeming subject. The author needs to work out the real subject and rewrite the sentence so that the reader knows what’s going on.

Example 16
cross.gif Recognising that settlement is more successful and sustainable where refugee communities are involved in the resettlement process, involvement of communities in government-mandated resettlement activities has increased.
tick.gif The government has recognised that settlement is more successful and sustainable where refugee communities are involved in the resettlement process. To reflect this, it has ensured that communities get more involved in government-mandated resettlement activities.

Part of the problem is the use of an abstract noun (“involvement”) that hides a strong verb. (See 8.4 of the Checklist: Use verbs rather than nouns)

Example 17
cross.gif After 15 years of serving the residential building industry, today marks the first day of retirement for Peter.
tick.gif After 15 years of serving the residential building industry, Peter marks his first day of retirement today.
tick.gif Having served the residential building industry for 15 years, Peter marks his first day of retirement today.
tick.gif Peter served the residential building industry for 15 years. Today he marks the first day of his retirement.

The confusion for readers here is that today is in the subject position of the main clause. In fact, Peter is the real subject. As you can see, the above example has several possible fixes.

The examples above had only one dangling participle each. But if your sentence has multiple dangling participles – and no obvious subject – it’s harder to fix:

Example 18
cross.gif Based on three decades of teaching English prep courses, I can assure you this is a safe supposition since no more than one in 100 remedial students can define the term “clause”.

The above example is near impossible to fix until the editor (or reader) knows what is “based on” (I, my experience, the safe supposition, the non-defining of the term “clauses”?) and who did the teaching.

Relative clauses

Relative clauses describe or identify a noun (thing, person, or concept). They are most effective when they sit next to whatever they are describing or identifying. (See 7.3 of the Checklist.)

Example 19
cross.gif The house will go to auction next month, which has been sitting empty for several years.
tick.gif The house, which has been sitting empty for several years, will go to auction next month.

Misplaced adverbials

An adverbial is the part of a sentence that modifies the verb. It usually describes the how, when, or where of the action. It can also describe the why and the how much. It can be a single word or a phrase.

In general, place the adverbial close to the verb, so the connection is obvious to the reader. An example of a confusing adverbial placement (verb in bold, adverbial in italics):

Example 20
cross.gif

The demonstrators marched peacefully to the trade union building to redeploy the Ukrainian flag that had been burned by supporters of closer ties with Russia on Saturday.

What happened on Saturday? The reader goes back to the previous actions. Did supporters of closer ties with Russia only want them then? Did supporters burn the flag then? No, the demonstrators marched on Saturday.

tick.gif The demonstrators marched peacefully to the trade union building on Saturday

Sometimes we place an adverbial at the front – either for emphasis (as in this sentence) or because it relates to the whole statement (as in the sentence below).

Example 21
tick.gif On Saturday, the demonstrators marched peacefully to the trade union building…

Incidentally, the placement of “peacefully” next to “marched” shows how to use an
adverbial clearly.

A particularly slippery adverb is “only”. This little word can modify a verb, an adjective, a noun, a phrase, a whole clause – just about any part of a sentence. It’s a “limiting” modifier. It tells the reader “this one” (whatever the action, description, thing, or idea is), not “any other one”.

To avoid confusing readers, always position only close to the word(s) it limits – as with all adverbs.

Example 22

Only the Minister may authorise a loan exceeding $1 million.
(No one else besides the Minister may do this.)

The Minister may only authorise a loan exceeding $1 million.
(The Minister has just the one task – they cannot do anything else.)

The Minister may authorise only a loan exceeding $1 million.
(There is just one thing the Minister may authorise: a loan.)

The Minister may authorise a loan only exceeding $1 million.
(Loans of $1 million and below are not part of the Minister’s remit.)

One final point about adverbials. In complex verb phrases, the adverb placement can introduce ambiguity. This is especially likely if you religiously follow archaic grammar rules such as “thou shalt never split an infinitive” (see 8.10 of the Checklist, Avoid archaic language).

Example 23
cross.gif If the licensee breaches a condition, the FMA must require the licensee immediately to provide an action plan.

The placement of the adverb “immediately” makes this sentence ambiguous. Is the FMA to immediately impose the requirement, or is the licensee to immediately provide the action plan?

tick.gif If the licensee breaches a condition, the FMA must immediately require the licensee to provide an action plan.
tick.gif If the licensee breaches a condition, the FMA must require the licensee to provide an action plan immediately.

The two plain-language rules of thumb here are:

  • Simply place the adverb next to the verb (part of the verb pattern) it correctly modifies.
  • Do split an infinitive or any other verb pattern with an adverb if this creates less chance of ambiguity.

Modifying two nouns

Adjectives are one of the simpler forms of modifier in English. Adjectives describe nouns in two ways:

Example 24

Immediately before the noun, in a noun phrase:

A written notice

After the noun, in a complement, linked by a verb such as “to be”:

The notice is in writing

Most of the time, there is little room for confusion with these two adjectival usages. However, a statement can be ambiguous when one adjective appears in a phrase with two separate nouns, usually linked by “or” or “and”:

Example 25
cross.gif A written notice or warning

Clearly the notice must be in writing, but what about a warning? Can the warning be made            orally? To make this clear and avoid confusing readers, the author should reword the phrase:

tick.gif A written notice or written warning (if both must be in writing)
tick.gif A warning or written notice (if only the notice must be in writing)

Sometimes the noun phrase consists of two alternatives:

Example 26
tick.gif A registered dentist or medical practitioner
tick.gif An elected member or office-bearer

In this case, the application of the adjective to both nouns is understood – in most cases.

Or a phrase may contain nouns recognised as, effectively, a single item:

Example 27
tick.gif Delicious fish and chips

Only one adjective is necessary here.

It’s a judgement call as to what type of complex noun phrase you are modifying. As a rule, if there is any room for doubt, reword the phrase.

The same potential for ambiguity exists when two nouns are modified by a phrase coming afterwards:

Example 28
cross.gif A teacher or student of mathematics

links both nouns to the modifier

You can remove this ambiguity easily by how you manage the articles (“a”).

tick.gif A teacher or a student of mathematics

only the student is modified

tick.gif A student or a teacher of mathematics

only the teacher is modified

Which one?

A serious mismatching issue can arise when you use pronouns such as she, it, or they, or the adverb there.

Pronouns usually refer to a person, thing, idea, or place. We use them so we don’t have to keep repeating the person, thing, idea, or place. Each pronoun has a corresponding possessive adjective.

To ensure clarity for the reader, always make sure your pronoun/possessive adjective refers to the very last one mentioned:

Pronoun/possessive adjectiveWhat it should refer to
she / her last female mentioned

he / his

last male mentioned
they / their last (gender-neutral) person mentioned
it / its last thing or idea mentioned
this or that last idea mentioned (to avoid confusion with things)
they / their last people or things mentioned
these / their last things mentioned (to avoid confusion with people)
there last place mentioned


Linguists call this problem deixis: when the reader has to look outside the immediate clause or sentence to find the part being referred to. It can be in a clause further back, the preceding sentence, the preceding paragraph, or even a later sentence or paragraph.

The word it is a particularly acute deixis trap. We find it handy because we can use it in several different ways besides identifying a thing (get it?):

Example 29

to identify an idea

Returning New Zealanders could be tested immediately on stepping off the plane. We would certainly consider it.

Example 30

to refer to the whole of the preceding statement

The IT person just told me to switch my machine off and back on again. It’s not how I would have solved the problem.

Use “this” or “that” in place of “it” if there’s any chance of confusion.

Example 31

in idiomatic verb phrases

Give it a rest, why don’t you.

Example 32

in false subjects

It is important to wash your hands regularly         (in place of “You should…”)

They as a plural pronoun is also sometimes awkward because it can refer to several people previously mentioned or several things. For the latter, use these to differentiate:

Example 33

Number mismatches can temporarily confuse readers. And they are certainly irritating.

There is often used with the verb “to be” in non-specific statements:         

Example 34

There are too many stars in the sky to count.

Footnotes

Footnotes are a recognised convention in academic writing. You’ll also find them in reports – though not in news articles, opinion pieces, or any writing in narrative style.

The main problem with footnotes is that they disrupt the reading. The reader has to look elsewhere while holding their train of thought. Then they have to find their place in the text again. And if the footnotes are collated at the end of a document, the reader is even more likely to get lost. A more modern problem is that footnotes don’t translate well into online text.

You can avoid footnotes in two main ways. The most obvious way is to move the content of the footnote into the body of the text, as in the example below.

Example 35
cross.gif Emphasis1

1Use it sparingly – readers don’t always like being told how to read
tick.gif Emphasis (use it sparingly – readers don’t always like being told how to read)

The second option is to just delete it – after all, the very act of turning information into a footnote suggests it is non-essential.

There is a stronger argument for using footnotes to cite sources. Footnote users would argue that this prevents disrupting the flow of the text. If you look at news articles and opinion pieces, they always give the source of a statement or opinion next to the words in question.

Mostly it is a matter of context. When the eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote papers for his profession, they would have abounded in footnotes. But when he put his interesting cases into books for a general readership, he avoided footnotes.

Solutions

Here is how to avoid mismatches in your own writing:

  • Always aim to place connected parts next to each other.
  • Aim for shorter sentences.
  • Read your sentences aloud, to see if anything sounds a bit “off”.
  • Get others to read your sentences for sense.
  • Be ever alert to “clanger” potential.

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