HELP! My modifier is squinting!
by Lesley Sudders
I wrote carefully, searching for just the right words to add a little something to a noun or verb. But there it was. Squinting, according to Grammarly.com. Will the odious thing be looking askance at me, viewing me with suspicion? Hostility? What’s next?
Can’t most readers stand a little ambiguity? Aren’t they smart enough to know what I mean? Won’t they do some of my work for me? Will I have to rewrite the whole paragraph?
Happily, the answer is that some artful rearranging may suffice.
Although I think I know something about grammar, I’d never heard of squinting modifiers until recently. Along with most language geeks, I knew about dangling and misplaced modifiers, and that a modifier in the wrong place can be unintentionally hilarious. But squinting? Perhaps it’s a newer designation.
We’ve all had the experience of reading along just fine until something jolts us. We blink, or perhaps our restful recreation screeches to a halt. Something isn’t right. There are many reasons for this. But one that can be overlooked by the writer is that a perfectly wonderful modifier, one that adds a critical or colorful detail, is used incorrectly.
So I’m girding my loins to write a note about grammar, a very discrete part, a spoonful in the ocean of proper usage and occasional obscure terminology. First, let’s agree on what a modifier is. Think of adjectives and adverbs – the words, phrases, or clauses that do something to, respectively, a noun or a verb. The next thing to keep in mind is that modifiers may be restrictive (i.e., they change the meaning of the sentence) or non-restrictive (i.e., if omitted, the meaning does not change).
For more information, please refer to “The Little Book,” aka The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. You do have a copy, don’t you? It’s terrific but does not address the squinters. However, numerous books and the Internet can help. Onward.
Definition, courtesy of Dictionary.com:
Squinting modifier: A word or phrase that can modify either the words that precede it or those that follow.
In other words, the word or phrase can “squint” for clarity, and can look backward or forward, right or left.
Following are examples from my own deathless prose, with the squinter underscored.
“Posie told Julie when the show was over he would take her out for lunch.”
We don’t know when he told her. Was it before the show, so she could wait in breathless anticipation for the final moment when the host bid his public farewell? (I did it again! Was he bidding farewell to his viewers for the day, or was it a public swan song? Drat!)
Was it after the show and she, by golly, turned him down, since he assumed she had nothing better to do than wait around for him?
“When the show was over, Posie told Julie he would take her out for lunch.” (Her reply is unrecorded.)
“Posie told Julie he would take her out for lunch when the show was over.” (More polite, and assumes he said this before the show.)
“An arms dealer like Harry who failed to deliver rarely was allowed to live.”
So, which is it? Was he was stand-up guy who almost always kept his word to his underworld buyers so they didn’t kill him at the first failure?
Or, do the criminals who buy illicit weapons almost always execute an unreliable dealer without a second chance?
The fixes (moving “rarely” to other locations):
“An arms dealer like Harry who failed to deliver was rarely allowed to live.” (Those buyers are mean guys.)
“An arms dealer like Harry who rarely failed to deliver was allowed to live.” (Harry gets a little forbearance.)
“Troas requested after her wedding that her old clothing should be distributed to the poor.”
Again, a problem of when she made this request.
“After her wedding, Troas requested that her old clothing should be distributed to the poor.” (We know she didn’t get around to this prior to her perhaps-whirlwind courtship and marriage.)
“Troas requested that after her wedding, her old clothing should be distributed to the poor.” (Seems clear that she had forethought about the outdated duds. Note that “that” is moved.
I mentioned Grammarly.com. It is a valuable resource, although not free. You may cut and paste sections of your work, and run the test. The goblins within will give you advice which you may accept or reject.
For your consideration: Do you need all of your modifiers? Take courage and eliminate most of them. You will strengthen your prose as you whittle away flabby excesses. This is especially true of adverbs. Your choice of verb and illustrative action along with it should show the reader what you want him or her to see, hear, or feel.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.