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Author Topic: Quick Quiz on Wayward Modifiers  (Read 4592 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: March 23, 2009, 02:36:34 PM »

QUICK! Take this one-minute grammar quiz to see how English-savvy you are.

What do the following four sentences have in common?

(1) From a newspaper feature article: “Tropical countries like the Philippines with lush rainforests are home to many plant and animal life.”

(2) From a business column: “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger does not allow the sale of the world-famous cola in California high schools to fight obesity.”

(3) From a product news release: “Sol Cellular proudly announces the latest addition to its growing family—Ana Belleza, its newest prepaid endorser.” [The name of the company and that of its endorser have been changed.]

(4) From a newspaper advertorial: “Breast cancer is the illness that women fear most because it is the most visible embodiment of a woman’s sexuality.”

Answer: Each of the sentences has a modifier running loose, making it say something other than what it really means to say. Remember now that wayward modifiers are those misplaced words or phrases that ruin our best-laid ideas just when we thought we had already gotten everything right.

To begin with, the sentence in Item 1 is afflicted with a squinter—the phrase “with lush forests.” That phrase just can’t seem to make up its mind which words to modify! It makes us think that it means to modify “the Philippines,” but on closer examination, we find that it should be logically modifying “tropical countries” instead.
The correct meaning comes through when that modifying phrase is placed where it should be: “Tropical countries with lush rainforests like the Philippines are home to many plant and animal life.”     

In Item 2, the sentence fails semantically because the infinitive phrase “to fight obesity” has strayed too far from where it should logically be. It has wrongly latched on to the tail end of the sentence, making it appear that Gov. Schwarzenegger is opposed to the idea of fighting obesity through a ban of cola sales in California high schools. The fact is that the governor himself is the advocate of the cola ban to fight obesity.

The governor’s position becomes clear when we yank the stray modifier into its proper place: “To fight obesity, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger does not allow the sale of the world-famous cola in California high schools.”

The problem of the sentence in Item 3 is more subtle but much more semantically subversive. Being so footloose with its modifiers, the sentence inadvertently trumpets an inconsequential thing at the expense of the product being promoted. So Ana Belleza is the company’s “newest prepaid endorser.” But what’s the big deal about it? Does it really matter to us whether she’s paid before or after she endorses the product? We have here a curious case of the product itself having been marginalized into a misplaced modifier. 

Now here’s a rewrite that puts everything in its proper place: “Sol Cellular proudly announces the latest addition to its growing family—Ana Belleza, the newest endorser of its prepaid cellular phone card.”

Finally, in sentence 4, we have a serious two-horned semantic problem. Its subordinate phrase, “because it is the most visible embodiment of a woman’s sexuality,” not only uses the pronoun “it” with a wrong antecedent—“breast cancer”—but also wrongly modifies the main clause, “Breast cancer is the illness that women fear most.”

We can make the intended idea come through clearly by fixing the pronoun problem and positioning the subordinate phrase up front where it can do its modifying job best: “Because the breast is the most visible embodiment of a woman’s sexuality, breast cancer is the illness that women fear most.”

So what’s the important grammar lesson that we learned today? It is that we should always make doubly sure that wayward modifiers don’t muddle what we want to say, and the best way to do that is to place modifiers beside or nearest to the words they modify.

From Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.
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maxsims
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« Reply #1 on: June 23, 2009, 08:41:52 AM »

Joe,

I've just returned from a flying visit to your country.    While there, I was helping my ward with her English studies.    A sample answer to one of the questions included the phrase "the synthetic production of silk".

This sample answer was contained in....wait for it...an IELTS study guide!
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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: June 23, 2009, 10:12:56 AM »

Joe,

I've just returned from a flying visit to your country.    While there, I was helping my ward with her English studies.    A sample answer to one of the questions included the phrase "the synthetic production of silk".

This sample answer was contained in....wait for it...an IELTS study guide!

I remember having answered this question several weeks back, but my posting seems to have been misplaced somewhere or lost forever. Anyway, the question you referred to is a classic case of a misplaced single-word modifier. That phrase should have been phrased as "the production of synthetic silk"--what's synthetic is the silk, not its production.

I know how it is with some of the people who prepare study guides. Having worked in that industry myself for over five years, some of the creative writers who get into it sometimes get overly creative or are grammatically or semantically challenged themselves. That's why the industry needs truly good editors who know the English language down to its smallest punctuation.
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