Stop Pushing Your Modifiers Around!
by Kathleen Watson
Modifiers are supposed to add meaning or clarification. A misplaced modifier can do just the opposite.
Consider these differing connotations of often:
College students who meet often with their advisers make better career choices.
College students who meet with their advisers often make better career choices.
Should you assume that students have to meet frequently with their advisers to make better career choices? Or should you conclude that just one meeting with an adviser is enough to help a student make better choices?
For clarity, a modifier should be placed closest to the word or phrase it is meant to influence or explain.
Consider these differing connotations of almost:
Sam has almost failed every test this semester.
Sam has failed almost every test this semester.
There’s a big difference between almost — but not quite — failing every test and failing almost every — the majority of — tests.
Consider these differing connotations of only:
You only can apply for health insurance online.
You can only apply for health insurance online.
You can apply for health insurance only online.
The first only could modify you, conveying that you are the only person who can apply for health insurance online. A reader probably would not draw that conclusion, but it’s open to that interpretation.
Or only could modify can apply, suggesting that you can apply for health insurance online, but you can do nothing else with it electronically. In other words, you can’t file a claim online, you can’t get responses to questions online, and you can’t set up online payments.
The third only example clearly communicates that online is the only way you can apply for health insurance.
Only is the most abused modifier ever!
Among everyday modifiers, I consider only the most abused. From bloggers to reporters, from texters to tweeters, from commentators to those who create headlines, writers and speakers in every medium keep pushing only around.
Consider how these examples show that modifier placement changes meaning:
Only Dan sang at the party. (No one else sang.)
Dan only sang at the party. (He didn’t dance or play the piano.)
Dan sang only at the party. (He didn’t sing elsewhere.)
Don’t push your modifiers around! Have some respect: Place them closest to the word or phrase whose meaning they influence.
Kathleen Watson has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at: Kathy@RuthlessEditor.com.