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Misplaced Modifiers

Chapter:
Grammar
Author(s):

Stacy Christiansen

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers result from failure to make clear what is being modified. Illogical or ambiguous placement of a word or phrase can usually be avoided by placing the modifying word or phrase appropriately close to the word it modifies.

Unclear:

Dr Young treated the patients using antidepressants. [Who used the antidepressants? Ambiguity makes 2 meanings possible.]

Better:

Dr Young treated the patients with antidepressants.

or

[alternative meaning]: Dr Young treated the patients who were using antidepressants.

Unclear:

The patient was referred to a specialist with severe bipolar disorder. [Who had the bipolar disorder?]

Better:

The patient with severe bipolar disorder was referred to a specialist.

Likewise, sometimes it is necessary for clarity to place an adverb within a verb phrase. Note the shift in meaning when the adverb is moved outside of the verb phrase.

He had just called me.

He had called just me.

Use of the word only as a modifier poses particular problems. It must be placed immediately before the word or phrase it modifies for the meaning to be clear. Note the different meanings achieved depending on placement in the examples below.

Only medication can ease the pain.

Medication can only ease the pain.

Medication can ease only the pain.

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