|Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2010|
The Humor of Misplaced Modifiers
By Suzanne E. Rowe
English is a logical language, although in our haste we sometimes write it illogically. The unintended results of our haste are often humorous. Consider this example: Being insane, the attorney asked that his client be admitted to a mental hospital. Who is insane? The attorney? The client? Read on.
Word Order in English
The typical word order in English presumes that we keep subjects and verbs close together and that we place descriptions closest to words they describe. To demonstrate, let’s play with the following sentence:
The lawyers walked to their offices after lunch.
As is typical, the subject and verb appear first and right next to each other. The lawyers walked. Keeping the subject and verb close together enhances the readability and clarity of the sentence. Try this variation:
The lawyers to their offices after lunch walked.
In the variation, the reader has to hold the subject in limbo, wondering until the end of the sentence what the lawyers were doing.
In our original sentence, the phrase to their offices appears after walked to provide more detail on the verb. Where did the lawyers walk? To their offices. The phrase isn’t so helpful at the beginning of the sentence, and that order has a Yoda-ish feeling:
To their offices the lawyers walked.
The final piece of the original sentence, after lunch, could appear at the beginning or end of the sentence because it explains a concept relevant to the whole sentence.
After lunch, the lawyers walked to their offices.
Let’s return to the insanity example to see what happens when we misplace parts of sentences.
Being insane, the attorney asked that his client be admitted to a mental hospital.
Who is insane? The structure of this sentence suggests the attorney is the one with mental problems. More likely, the attorney is fine, but the writer has a placement problem.
The rather humorous confusion results because we logically attach the modifying phrase being insane to the first noun we encounter. Here, it’s the attorney rather than the client.
There are two fixes. First, move insane closer to the client than to the attorney.
The attorney asked that his insane client be admitted to a mental hospital.
A second possibility is to explain up front who is insane. This fix requires repeating the reference to the client, so the modifying phrase has a clear attachment point.
Because his client was insane, the attorney asked that his client be admitted to a mental hospital.
Watch with amusement now, as words float away from whatever they were intended to explain or modify.
Chris was attacked while attending a concert by an unknown man.
My first question is how many people would attend a concert given by an unknown man. Can you imagine the posters and radio ads? “Come to a concert by someone you’ve never heard of!”
The more pressing question is who attacked Chris. Surely the writer meant to suggest that the unknown man attacked Chris, not that the unknown man gave the concert Chris attended.
The sentence is easy to fix. Just move by an unknown man closer to what that man did (i.e., attacked).
Chris was attacked by an unknown man while attending a concert.
If you want to avoid the passive voice, but still emphasize that no one knows the attacker, rearrange the sentence this way:
An unknown man attacked Chris while she was attending a concert.
Renee was struck by a Mercedes walking her dog.
Do you have a great mental image of a fancy car walking Renee’s dog? Technically, that’s what the sentence says. Or maybe you assumed the “a” was a typo and instead see someone named Mercedes walking her own dog and then slapping Renee in the face!
What the writer most likely meant is much less amusing than either of those possibilities. Poor Renee was walking her dog (not the dog that belongs to Mercedes) and got hit by a car. The best solution is to place walking her dog closer to Renee.
Renee was walking her dog when she was struck by a Mercedes.
Just the Lung?
As a result of her skiing injuries, Jane suffered a collapsed lung, which was treated at the hospital after being transported by stretcher off the slopes to a nearby ambulance.
Perhaps my imagination is too vivid. Perhaps I read sentences too literally. But this example really does say that only the lung is transported by stretcher off the snowy slopes, rides in an ambulance, and gets treated at the hospital. I feel so sorry for Jane, still lying on the side of a mountain, not only injured but now without a lung.
The sentence could be repaired in many ways. The simplest is to place the events in sequence (e.g., transported then treated). It couldn’t hurt to repeat that Jane is the one being transported.
As a result of her skiing injuries, Jane suffered a collapsed lung. She was transported by stretcher off the slopes to a nearby ambulance, which took her to the hospital that treated her lung.
The bartender announced to his patrons that the house was haunted by Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway after they had consumed several margaritas.
I love Key West, where I presume this haunted house exists, but the sentence is amusingly confusing. Who drank the margaritas? The dead author and his wife? The bartender and his patrons? Perhaps the person who wrote that sentence? Making the sentence clear is as simple as moving the modifying language to the front of the sentence and explicitly stating who did what.
After his patrons had consumed several margaritas, the bartender announced that the house was haunted by Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway.
I’m sure that no reader of the Bulletin would ever make silly mistakes like those above. But perhaps the following might pop up in your documents? For each, identify the ambiguity, and then move things around to clarify the sentence.
1. Jay has lost nearly all of the cases he has tried.
What a bad record! Unless the word “nearly” is misplaced. What if the writer really means that Jay has nearly lost all of the cases, which means Jay has won them all?
2. After wiping away all fingerprints, the police concluded that the defendant had left the scene.
This sentence suggests police misconduct. Did the police really wipe away the fingerprints? If the writer instead means to suggest the defendant tried to cover up his action, then the wiping needs to move to the end of the sentence. The police concluded that the defendant had left the scene after wiping away all fingerprints.
3. I leave $5,000 to Ann Smith, the daughter of my first wife, who is now married to John Riley.
Who is married to Mr. Riley? The writer’s stepdaughter or his first wife? Assuming the marriage is important for determining which of several women named Ann Smith the writer is remembering in his will, the following rearrangement might work: I leave $5,000 to my first wife’s daughter, Ann Smith, who is now married to John Riley.
(If the writer really means to make a jab at his former wife’s choice of subsequent husband, so be it.)
The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (15th ed. 2003).
Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (5th ed. 2005).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. As the Luvaas Faculty Fellow for 2008-2010, she is grateful to the Luvaas Faculty Fellowship Endowment Fund for support of her articles in The Legal Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2010 Suzanne E. Rowe