Abusing Modifiers

My last post explained why everyone, even those who consider themselves skilled word-smiths, should still use spell-check. However, even the most advanced automated tools cannot find every compositional error that writers make.  In truth, every writer needs an editor for this purpose.

One error that is impossible for a computer to detect is the abuse of modifiers.  This is because a computer cannot detect the difference between many of the modified objects, and thus does not realize that a modifying phrase is in the wrong position.

Too abstract? Try this: “The cat sat on the roof which was a tabby.”  This should sound off, because it implies the roof is a tabby.  Obviously, on reading this, we realize that it is the cat that is a tabby, but it takes extra time and effort on the part of the reader.  Rearranging it, we get “The cat, which was a tabby, sat on the roof.” (Or, more succinctly, “the tabby cat sat on the roof.”)

I bring this up because one of the City Councilpeople in my hometown repeatedly and egregiously mangled her modifying phrases in a recent “Letter to the Editor”.  Councilperson Cheri Bryant Hamilton was criticized in a recent Louisville Courier-Journal article for using council fund to give out grocery store gift cards to people in her district.  She responded in her own newsletter, the entirety of which can be seen here.

I am making no comment on the substance or implications of those charges. Instead, I want to focus on the text.  The first sentence of the 4th paragraph reads:

“The outcome of the wet/dry election of September 11, 2007 which was mentioned in the story, was accomplished through the hard work and dedication of neighborhood residents and others over the course of many months who were sick and tired of crime in their area.”

Ignoring the unbalanced parenthetical remark near the beginning, this is a difficult sentence to read through.  The phrase “who were sick and tired of crime in their area” needs to be closer to the “residents and others”, not after “over the course of many months”.  We all know that it wasn’t the months that were sick and tired, as that would be nonsensical, but it still impedes understanding to have the modifier so far from the modified.

It is not the only example:

“Kroger gift cards were just some of the many other types of door prizes solicited by members of the District 5 Advisory Council who co-sponsor the holiday party that were awarded to people who had their lucky number drawn.”

Again, we know that it is not the holiday party that is being awarded to people.  However, again, it is difficult to fully parse the sentence out.  (We’ll skip over the use of “awarded” for a door prize.)

This is not to make fun of Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton.  I am certain she took care in crafting this message.  However, for many who read it, little errors like these make it difficult to appreciate her point.  There are other errors in her message (including at one point using “their” to refer to a single entity, the Courier-Journal), and these errors make her message less persuasive than it could have been.

This is a very common problem for individuals, especially those (like politicians) who are more comfortable with spoken communication than written communication.  They are radically different media, and have different requirements.  Few will notice a misplaced modifier as they are taking in the entirety of a spoken argument; it stands out more strongly when we are taking our time reading it.  There is a different standard for a written letter than for a stump speech.

We often cannot find all the flaws in our own writing.  This is often due to already knowing too intimately what we mean. We skip over small errors like this, or tell ourselves that our audience will “know what we mean”.  However, taking the time to give such a missive to an editor first can make the difference between a hastily written letter that is ignored and a well-written piece that persuades those who read it.

If you find yourself in need of editing assistance, whether for a letter to the editor or a full-on article claiming your innocence, contact me at w.david.frost@gmail.com.  

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One response to “Abusing Modifiers

  1. That is a super-peachy-keen post. Thanks for really blathering on like that! Seriously, I don’t think I could have spent more effort wishing for something heavy to fall on me to erase that nonsense from my mind!