Category Archives: misplaced modifier

“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs…”

“Both” is a troublesome word for student writers. They join all sorts of people in collaborations never intended by the people themselves. Carping about it in this example may seem extreme—after all, “both” doesn’t necessarily mean “together” or “simultaneously.” But trouble arises before the sentence is over:

“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly.”

See? The word comes into sentences that are merely talking about two people, not necessarily about two people who are doing similar things. In fact here, they are doing something together that differs. Now, if my student were going on to add a third party—”Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly from Cotton Mather’s,” for example—she might be working on an imaginable idea. But she has no such plans.

Actually Anne Bradstreet’s beliefs and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s differ greatly. So do their manners of presentation—Bradstreet’s in poetry and letters and private meditations, Emerson’s in poetry and essays and sermons. In this survey course students read some of each, so it’s hard to be sure what “manner” is in this student’s mind.

The paper itself was looking at religion in Bradstreet and Emerson and pointing out that they had different ideas about it—not surprisingly, considering their separation in time, denominations, and societal roles. But in this sentence, they’re presenting their beliefs, both of them, in a single manner (we deduce from its singular form), and that single manner differs. From what, we do not know.

One of the words I sometimes want to outlaw for student writers is “both.” In “both-and” sentences the parallelism is almost never achieved; in other sentences we get these unintended partnerships. In other words, its use is both ungrammatical and imprecise. Is this another lost cause in the great battle over English as she is spoke?

“The only major factor in the case is Rod’s sexuality, which is just a result of ignorance on the part of the people of Virginia.”

Remember the divorcing Virginia couple, gay father, fighting for custody of their daughter? My student is writing here in defense of the father’s claim.

Briefly: still-smoking lung-cancer survivor (one lung removed) mother, homosexual father with live-in partner, 11-year-old daughter. Divorce five years prior. On the basis of “the best interests of the child” the original custody decision went to father as the more stable parent, the principal care-giver for most of the girl’s life, initially the one who wanted custody. After the mother recovers from surgery she appeals the decision; second judge awards custody to her because the father is gay and Virginia law forbids “homosexual conduct” ( the father was by then violating the first judge’s condition that the partner not be live-in). “He is breaking the laws of the state of Virginia every day,” says Judge Number Two, “and no child should be in the custody of a criminal.” (This is evidently still the policy, as a recent article indicates.)

In taking Rod’s side my student means to say that the laws of Virginia are ignorant laws, and anyone who would tease the daughter (as her dear little schoolmates did) is ignorant too. A fine position.

What my student says, however, is that Rod’s sexuality is the result of the ignorance of an entire stateful of people. Well, I say, shame on him for listening to a bunch of ignorant people! He should have thought out his sexual issues for himself!

Oh, that adjective clause. It really, really has to modify a noun that coexists in the same sentence—indeed, that immediately precedes it. The law of grammar says, inevitably, then, that Rod’s sexuality was a result of ignorance on the part of the people of Virginia. If only they had known better, they might have managed to get him a more legally-conforming sexuality, I guess.  How cruel that their ignorance has victimized Rod and his daughter in this way.

Well, their ignorance has victimized Rod and his daughter, by continuing to tolerate this law. The meaning of the sentence may not be accurate, but the consequences are six of one, as the saying goes.

And curing the ignorance of the people of Virginia would fix the problem in this case either way. Sounds like a plan.


“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because….”

Poor Othello. I have spent it-seems-like-a-lifetime trying to persuade students that Othello has no “tragic flaw,” and is not jealous until Iago has worked on him for more than three acts of the play. But they have read it—OTHELLO”S TRAGIC FLAW IS JEALOUSY—first in Cliff’s Notes and now in Spark Notes, and such impersonal voices of authority are stronger than mine.

I see Othello as a tragedy of innocence. Othello was no more suited to the intrigues of Venetian life than Desdemona, albeit for different reasons. Iago is the jealous one; but since Iago is also a very good student of psychology (even before it existed as a discipline), he knows how to create jealousy, and can work Othello into a virtuous murderous rage by way of it.

Othello has refused to believe ill of Desdemona without ocular proof. Iago has, conveniently enough, come by the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona during their courtship, a handkerchief that had been given to his mother. The handkerchief is maneuvered into the hands of Cassio, someone Desdemona and Othello have both trusted and respected and Othello has promoted. Othello has quarreled with Cassio over some drunken behavior, and Desdemona has undertaken to get Cassio back into Othello’s good graces. But her advocacy irritates her husband, and when he sees that handkerchief in Cassio’s hand (and on the way into Cassio’s mistress’s hand) after many insinuations by Iago, he is indeed ready to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

The rest is tragic.

My student was trying to describe the handkerchief ploy. What he wrote is correct, but oh how awkward. This was a sentence ill begun and faithfully carried through to its disastrous end:

“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because he found a handkerchief in one of his friend’s hands that belonged to him.”

Can you sort it out? Perhaps “because he found his own handkerchief in the hands of one of his friends” would save it. But what got onto the paper seems to suggest that Othello has a collection of hands. Several of those hands belonged to his friend, but now they belong to him: it’s his very own hand collection. But one day he has evidently gone in to gaze upon his collection and, lo and behold, one of those hands has a handkerchief in it! Certainly his wife must be cheating on him! Has she been sneaking into the room, I wonder, and putting handkerchiefs into hands that don’t belong to her? That’s not playing fair…

Isn’t that how the modifiers have to play out? “That belonged to him” has to modify “hands,” doesn’t it? It’s an adjective clause, and as such has to modify the noun that immediately precedes the relative pronoun. That is “hands.” And the handkerchief is in one of those hands. The hands belong to his friend (note the singular possessive). Othello has a strange notion of friendship, expressing his fondness by removing his friend’s hands and taking possession of them.

The image is grotesque and hilarious. WHY didn’t my student start over when he saw that the sentence was getting out of, um, hand? I’m afraid he just carried on because he didn’t really know that the sentence was grotesque or unmanageable. How could he not have known, though?

Ah well. My dear father had as a driving mantra “Never turn around.” If he missed a turn, or got lost, he pushed forward until he found an intersection that promised a chance to change direction. He did know, though, that he had missed the turning, or that he was lost. He found a way to correct the error, no matter how circuitous the correction. We had some interesting trips.

My student, I’m afraid, had no idea he was lost: he drove on because he thought he was on the right road. And by gum, he was! But the road is so rough that it must have been under construction. I wish he had looked for a detour.


“At the age of eight, a boy probably has not a fully developed naked body of a woman…”

This comes from an essay about the theater that exhibited paintings, including nudes, in a lobby where children at a theater day-camp saw them.

When you read my student’s complete sentence, you’ll know that all she did was lose a word:

“At the age of eight, a boy probably has not a fully developed naked body of a woman, so without a doubt this would cause uproar.”

The missing word is, of course, “seen.” Insert that after “not” and you’ll get a perfectly reasonable, albeit inelegant, sentence—wouldn’t you move “fully developed” to modify “woman” rather than “naked body”? Do you really need “naked”? But adjective placement is the least of this student’s worries.

One of the reasons I urge students to proofread by reading aloud is that the eye sometimes corrects errors, but reading aloud forces the eye to move more slowly and read more accurately. Perhaps reading this sentence aloud would have helped my student notice her omission—or else notice how bizarre the existing sentence was.

But I do like what she wrote. The “probably” is great here: what are the odds that an eight-year-old boy might have the fully developed naked body of a woman? Then what would cause the uproar—his having it, or his not having it?

“…, like children,…”

For my subscribers, I’m sorry for that curtailed post. I was nearly finished with my discussion when a little tiny power failure merely dimmed my lights briefly but shut off my computer. There’s supposed to be an auto-save feature on this site, but evidently it was napping.

I will try again. I began by remarking that I have never before had such a hectic “summer vacation,” too busy most days to even indulge in this blog.

Then I turned to the Horror of the Day.

This student was writing an essay on fast food. Here’s her complete sentence—a perfectly reasonable sentence, really, for those who know ahead of time what her point is:

“Those who do not really know the repercussions of what they put into their bodies, like children, can eat their futures away.”

Unforewarned, I read along with my usual reasonableness…and took the “like children” to be a “such as” phrase to modify “what they put into their bodies,” a kind of adjective. Visions of enfant en casserole and Kinderschnitzel flashed into my mind. Yes, my student was explaining that people who eat children are eating the future away.

Well, that’s true. If enough people chow down on childmeat, that will be the end of the next generation, and hence the end of Homo sapiens. My student has indicated that Homo unaware of the effects of his meal choice isn’t all that sapiens, anyway.

I do love the idea of eating one’s future away. She had a good image there, and she could have made it work by just moving that little parenthetical modifier:

“Those who, like children, do not really know the repercussions of what they put into their bodies can eat their futures away.” The “like children” is actually more of an adverb describing the “how” of not-knowing. In other words, children (and adults just as oblivious as children) who stuff deep-fried foods and sugary treats into their mouths today are laying the groundwork for Type II diabetes tomorrow. My student’s source materials supported this point, and she wanted to show its importance with a nice metaphor. Brava to her.

But she has to remember that readers may not be thinking with her all the time. No reader should have to go through a complicated process in order to work through an essay:

  1. Read sentence.
  2. Pause.
  3. Say “huh??”
  4. Reread sentence.
  5. Say “oh.”
  6. Say “ah!”
  7. Reread paragraph up to and including sentence.
  8. Say “Oh, okay!”
  9. Read next sentence.

No one can get caught up in an idea by reading like the old school clocks: every minute click back one and then forward two.

I usually advocate proofreading by reading aloud to another person. But this was one bad sentence that wouldn’t have been saved that way, because the writer would have given the sentence the oral emphasis that it had in her own mind, and the listener wouldn’t have been confused. For this error to be caught, the sentence had to be read by a stranger who didn’t know its point in advance.

I guess I was the necessary stranger.

“She and Candide were destined to be together in both their eyes.”

My student is referring here to Cunégonde, the lovely aristocratic inamorata of the eponymous character in Voltaire’s extraordinary satire Candide. They carom around the globe like balls on a warped billiards table, meeting, glancing off each other, spinning away, colliding…. Their adventures are bizarre and darkly hilarious; and, yes, through it all, Candide longs for Cunégonde and Cunégonde knows she loves Candide.

In Candide’s eyes—”eyes” in the sense of “view,” or “belief,” or “opinion”—Cunégonde is his destiny. In Cunégonde’s eyes—again, “eyes” in the sense of “view” etc.—Candide is her destiny.

So what’s so wrong with my student’s sentence?

First of all we have an unfortunately placed adverbial prepositional phrase. Moved to the beginning of the sentence, “in both their eyes” would more clearly modify the sentence as a whole via its verb “were destined”: in their opinions, they were destined to be together. At the end of the sentence, though, the phrase can seem to be answering “where?” about “be together,” just as “in Peoria” would work in the sentence “She and Harold were destined to be together in Peoria.” They are destined to be together in their eyes. If such a thing is possible. Eeuuw.

And then we have that unlikely but very real student-writing Waterloo, “both.” Students stick it in all sorts of places in all sorts of sentences, trying to signify a unanimity of purpose, feeling, experience, or what-have-you. Most often they wind up suggesting collaboration or conjunction where there is none and never was any. I could give examples here, but the examples I have are interesting in their own right and deserve separate treatment. Something to look forward to!

Meanwhile, the fact that most eyes come in sets of two adds further confusion to the phrase “in both their eyes.” Do they have only two together, as the Fates shared but one when they wanted to see the future? In Candide, two one-eyed lovers would be no more surprising than the Old Woman With One Buttock. Voltaire may have missed a really good idea there….

Les yeux (tous les deux) de Voltaire

“The feeling of love is one that is shared by everyone…”

We can begin with this beginning. Unimpeachable observation, at first glance. Of course you’d think he was being paid by the word—that’s the only hypothesis that can excuse the number of featherbedders in this statement. “The feeling of love”? “is one that is”? Why not “everyone has felt love” or “everyone has been in love”? We also have to query, if not fully question, the implication that “love” is a single and clearly defined “feeling,” a universal experience…and the possible further implication that everyone shares this feeling with everyone else. So maybe the statement isn’t that unimpeachable after all. And maybe there’s worse to come?

“The feeling of love is one that is shared by everyone at some point of their lives, which may lead to frustration and anger.”

Huh? Well, the “at some point of their lives” does suggest that everybody isn’t feeling love for everybody else all the time, so that’s a help. I WILL object to “their” (plural pronoun to refer to the singular pronoun “everyone”= number-agreement error!), although I know this is a hopeless crusade of mine. But, typing with appropriately clenched fists, I will say that generally the sentence up to the comma is clear enough.

But then comes the adjective clause. Adjectives must either abut their nouns/pronouns or sit on the other side of a verb of being from them. So, what noun does “which” abut? “Some point of their lives”? If the adjective clause modified that, first of all it wouldn’t use a comma because it was limiting or specifying the point at which everyone shares the feeling of love: at a point that might lead to frustration. Surely my student didn’t mean to assert that love comes only at bad or dangerous moments.

We might consider the “which” clause as a modifier for a concept previously expressed albeit not in noun form, a structural maneuver routinely acceptable in colloquial speech or writing. Does my student mean, then, that the fact that everyone shares the feeling of love may lead to frustration or anger? I suppose it very well might, for a person who has not yet shared the feeling and fears he or she never will—or someone who has just been unceremoniously dumped by the object of his or her affection. I have to confess that I, even I, have been unceremoniously so dumped, and have considered writing poison-pen letters to everyone in that day’s newspaper’s “Engagements” section. Or perhaps he’s suggesting that the “at some point” is frustrating or angering—love coming only once, or love being so fleeting, or the arrival of love being so unpredictable.

Or maybe he’s just against love, the “which” referring to that first noun phrase, “the feeling of love.” Sooner or later he’s going to experience that infuriating feeling of love, dammit!

I may be the only person on earth (aside from my student) who knew what he meant. He meant to include an adjective after “of” and before “love.” But didn’t. The sentence wasn’t the first one in his essay, and maybe by then he had grown tired of typing the adjective, or felt safe in assuming that the reader no longer needed to have it spelled out. I knew what word was missing because I knew what the topic of his paper was: unrequited love. See how that one little addition fills the whole sentence with a logic or reasonableness that had been completely missing before?

Couldn’t such a wordy sentence have been persuaded to make room for just one more? Or if not, couldn’t he have sacrificed “is one that,” making ample space with some left over?

He might also have availed himself of my universal draft-reading recommendation: Ask someone else to read your draft, and choose someone who respects you but isn’t blinded to your imperfections by love. (That policy excludes mothers, fathers, grandmothers, uncles, dogs, sweethearts, and adoring siblings…) As long as he wasn’t at that moment sharing the feeling of love with everyone, he should have been able to find somebody…if he had thought to look.

Publicity photo by Kevin McNair for my friend Lucy’s production of the ultimate Unrequited Love play, Twelfth Night. In July, by The Players at Putney Gardens, Booth Memorial Park, Stratford, CT.

“He finds the land of the Houyhnhnms to be a kind of utopian society where all is perfect despite its glaring flaws.”

“He” is Gulliver, eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift’s great comic satire.

And she, my student, has ruined a perfectly good observation by giving in to the itch to define a word she thinks her reader may not know.

How many English-speaking college students (and beyond) need the word “utopian” defined? Of those who might, how many wouldn’t turn to a dictionary for a basic meaning, especially now that dictionaries can be consulted via cellphone? Okay, well, maybe a lot. But I don’t know that my student should care about them. Certainly she shouldn’t interrupt a serious reader with unnecessary explanations.

Because she does want to interrupt me, she misplaces the adverbial phrase that is the point of the sentence: “despite its glaring flaws.” I believe (well, I hope) she meant that despite its glaring flaws Gulliver believes the land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopia, a civic paradise. That is a fair observation, although most readers would defend Gulliver’s gullibility because the flaws actually are not particularly glaring: Gulliver and his Houyhnhnm “master” compare notes on the many differences between the culture there and British society ca. 1700, and like Gulliver the reader is more and more convinced of the superiority of the former, based as it is entirely on Reason. Politics, religion, law, warfare, economy—Reason wins on every count. Only when the master’s complete indifference to matters like paternal love comes into the picture does the reader blink and begin to doubt. At that point, alas, Gulliver himself doesn’t flinch; he continues to believe Houyhnhnm society is the ideal, even after being ejected from the country and returning home to England, where he prefers to stay in the stable with the horses rather than in the house with the family who now seem like Yahoos to him.

So, flaws not so glaring, but significant once the reader sees them. The sentence could have stood.

BUT she decided to define “utopian society” with an adjective clause, “where all is perfect,” and that clause introduces a second verb into the sentence. The adverb phrase that follows, then (“despite its glaring flaws”) seems to modify “is,” not “finds,” and “its” obligingly consents to modify “all.”  The most accessible reading of her sentence is that in a utopian society all is perfect despite its glaring flaws. And that doesn’t make any sense. Moving that adverbial phrase would have fixed it. But she didn’t move it.

Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia about an ideal (imagined) place, and he named it Utopia from the Greek, “no place.” We sometimes use the term ironically, but More’s decision to announce in the name itself that the place didn’t exist would suggest that he was indeed trying to imagine a society that didn’t exist, a society without flaws, glaring or otherwise, no matter how many scholars debate whether he was writing philosophy or satire.

My student is right that Gulliver finds the Houyhnhnm society utopian. Gulliver believes the society to be perfect despite serious flaws that are obvious (eventually) to the reader. The Houyhnhnms themselves are pretty smug—with reason, ha ha—but they don’t put the label on.

In a self-styled utopian society, the residents might insist that all is perfect no matter how often its flaws are pointed out to them. This phenomenon can be found in certain areas and creeds in U.S. society, where the chant “We’re Number One!” substitutes for thought.

I believe that we wouldn’t call such a society “utopian”; I believe we’d call it a “fool’s paradise.” And I believe we’d be right.

“Burns participated in many love affairs, which produced fourteen children out of wedlock.”

Talk about delicate.

Were these ongoing love affairs that Burns managed to get himself included in, the way a child can participate in a Youth Soccer program? English major or math major, you can get lost in those possible permutations and combinations, can’t you just?

Without a comma the sentence would be saying that there were many love affairs that produced fourteen children out of wedlock; with the comma, that Burns’ participation produced fourteen children out of wedlock. Does that mean that he was the father of fourteen illegitimate children, or merely that his participation was the catalyst that brought forth said children? Was he such fun, warbling “Comin’ Through the Rye,” that everyone relaxed and conceived?

How many affairs were there? Fourteen? Twenty-something, not all producing children? Four or five really active ones?

My student prefers to leave things ambiguous. Burns participated in “many” love affairs, but was not necessarily responsible for starting, and was not necessarily one of the essential participants, or even one of the direct participants. The fact that he participated produced fourteen children, but according to the language of the sentence he may not have been directly responsible for those children.

The rather Victorian phrase “out of wedlock” frosts this cake: the sentence is very polite. It makes no accusations, lays no blame, specifies no particular acts. There is participation; children are produced (out of wedlock) by the affairs. Don’t think of Burns as a philanderer, a party guy, an irresponsible sperm-spewer, a randy Scottish poet; he’s on the fringe of this sentence, looking on. That is, in fact, the extent of his participation in the sentence.

He seems to be an absent father even at the moment of procreation.

“He grew up with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was almost never home, until the age of eight when they both died.”

At last a student who can spell “mother,” and chooses to; but lo and behold, he can’t think of the word “father,” evidently. Does he intend to suggest that the subject of his sentence (alas, I have forgotten whom my student is writing about, and a hasty Google for “writer” and “alcoholic father” brings up an amazing number of possibilities!) was closer to his father than to his mother? Or possibly my student himself is closer to his father than to his mother. Certainly the use of an intimate term for the he-parent and a formal term for the she-parent raises this possibility. For the famous author in question, we can then picture dear old Dad lolling around the house in an alcoholic stupor but accessible to Sonny, and Mother out of the house day and night, a virtual stranger.

The tale is sad with or without the possible parental preference. But the sentence is sadder still.

The boy grew up until the age of eight. That’s what the sentence says. What he did thereafter is left for us to imagine. Did he arrest his development, remaining intellectually or emotionally eight years old for the rest of his life? We have to assume his physical growth was not arrested: even the death of both parents isn’t trauma sufficient to achieve such a corporal result. Probably he continued to grow up, but where and how are not addressed.

And WHO was at the age of eight, come to think of it? A comma sits there in the sentence but is being asked to do more than it is capable of (possibly too young also?). I know my student hoped the comma would enable the reader to see that parents died when the BOY was eight; but the nouns preceding “until the age of eight” are “dad” and “mother,” not “boy” (he). The reader is therefore free to assume that the parents died at the age of eight. If they were parents at the age of eight, I’d say they had every right to drink, or to wander around the neighborhood. Without the comma the sentence would have to be read to say that the mother was “almost never home until the age of eight,” and she would therefore certainly be a little kid, with a husband probably about the same age. My student flings in that comma like a tiny life-preserver for his sentence—but it doesn’t really look like a life-preserver, being only part of a circle, and I’m not sure I can let it succeed.

To be fair, I must admit that “until the age of eight” is an adverbial prepositional phrase (answers “when” about the verb) and therefore properly modifies “grew up”; thus the boy is eight when his parents die. Of course I knew what he meant, and his grammar actually means that too.

But the word order distracts my perfect parsing—”grew up” is SO far away from “until the age of eight,” and the verb phrase “was never home” is just itching to be modified by the phrase that follows it.  And “when they both died” clearly does refer to “dad and “mother,” and “age of eight” comes right after “mother” and therefore seems to modify her as well. A reader encountering this sentence for the first time is fully justified in getting lost in it, and imagining little kids (one a wino) parenting (!) somebody who actually grows up; he will walk beside their tiny coffins and then get on with his life.

Thursdays are always confusing: so near to, and yet so far from, the weekend.