Modifying Phrases May Confuse Your Readers

Misplaced modifying phrases sometimes result in odd, even humorous interpretations. Be certain to position the modifying word or phrase as close as possible to the term that is being modified. Consider, for example:

One of our executives has been sent to a counselor with a drinking problem.

A counselor with a drinking problem? It would be better to write:

One of our executives with a drinking problem has been sent to a counselor.

The modifying phrase "with a drinking problem" needs to be next to what is being modified—in this example, "one of our executives." How about this sentence:

This memo describes how to protect your possessions from our risk adjusters.

Thieving risk adjusters? It would be better to write:

This memo from our risk adjusters describes how to protect your possessions.

Sometimes the meaning is impossible to decipher. Read the following sentence:

The software engineer has been trying to get us to review his agreement for six weeks.

Do you see the problem? Because of the placement of the modifying phrase "for six weeks," the writer's intention is unclear. Here are three possible interpretations:

1. For six weeks, the software engineer has been trying to get us to review his agreement.

2. The software engineer has been trying to get us to review his six-week agreement.

3. The software engineer has been trying to get us to undertake a six-week review of his agreement.

Placing the modifying phrase next to the word or phrase that it is intended to modify solves this problem.

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