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The Grammar Mistake You Just Might Be Making

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A writer recently offered this:

Minutes after walking in the door, the phone rings.

I would hazard a guess that it's a mobile phone.

That's an example of a dangling modifier; the construction suggests that it was the phone that walked in. Logic prevails, so we realize that's not the case, but we don't know who actually did the walking.

Here's another:

Having worked in newspapers for 30 years, desktop publishing was an easy fit for Throckmorton.

We know that it was good old Throckmorton -- and not desktop publishing -- who worked in newspapers for three decades, but that's not how the sentence reads. A better construction would be this:

Having worked in newspapers for 30 years, Throckmorton found desktop publishing an easy fit.

(Good for Throckmorton. At 6-foot-9 and 140 pounds, he has trouble buying off the rack, and an easy fit is hard to come by.)

The point is that errant positioning of modifiers can lead to ambiguity or, far worse, an outright distortion of your meaning.

Take this example:

All your employees can't be superstars.

That tells the reader, essentially, that your workforce is middling at best.

What's actually meant is this:

Not all your employees can be superstars.

What moved? The word not -- in the first sentence, it was part of the contraction can't, but its clout was felt. The new sentence conveys the (presumably) intended message better -- that some on your staff might consistently perform extraordinarily well while others will deliver satisfactory work, and little more. A few, sadly, are a waste of protoplasm.

There's another modifier that needs to find its proper location in a sentence in order to keep your message clear: only. This is a tricky one; placement is crucial. Take this statement:

Gladys thinks Norbert plays the harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.
Now let's insert only at various points in the above sentence. With each relocation of only, a new understanding emerges:

Only Gladys thinks Norbert plays the harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.
Gladys only thinks Norbert plays the harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.
Gladys thinks only Norbert plays the harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.
Gladys thinks Norbert plays only the harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.
Gladys thinks Norbert plays the only harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.
Gladys thinks Norbert plays the harpsichord only with his eyes half-closed.
Gladys thinks Norbert plays the harpsichord with only his eyes half-closed.
Gladys thinks Norbert plays the harpsichord with his eyes only half-closed.

Granted, some of the above might give one pause. "...plays the only harpsichord..."? How many harpsichords might one expect to have? If we were to write, "...with his only eyes..." well, that's just kind of creepy, in an abstract way.

Look at the following, in which only is placed where it "sounds best" to many:

Gladys thinks Norbert only plays the harpsichord with his eyes half-closed.

It could be argued that it distinguishes playing the harpsichord from tuning it -- or varnishing it, maybe. More likely is that the writer would know what only modifies and presumes a tacit understanding on the reader's part. And we all recognize how dangerous it is to presume, because when you presume, you make a pres out of u and me.


A version of this article first appeared on www.ragan.com.

 
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