2 Bothersome Grammer Rules...

Maybe this is all the same question, but (a) what is a “misplaced modifier”? Can you give me an example showing one PLUS the correct way to re-word the example? And, (b) they say it is improrper to separate the subject from the verb, IIRC. So, adverbs became a pain… I’d like to say “the boy quickly did his homework”. But, more correctly, should it not read “the boy did his homework quickly”?

These things have always bugged me…

  • Jinx :rolleyes:

(b) is more a question of style than grammar. I read both sentences as saying the same thing, but I’d phrase it the first way.

There are all kinds of examples of (a) out there, but I can’t think of a good one off the top of my head.

I believe a misplaced modifier is a situation where the descriptive word is not describing the thing is it supposed to, as in :
“I barely threw the ball ten feet”

when what I meant to say was
“I threw the ball barely ten feet”.
The first sentence sounds like I threw the ball ten feet, but I threw it barely, whatever that means.
The second sentence makes it more clear I think, that the distance I threw the ball was barely ten feet.
In other words, “barelY” should modify “feet”, not “threw”.

When you get done with grammar, are you going to take on spelling? :smiley:

Who said this?

There is a “rule” that says you shouldn’t split infinitives (e.g. “To Boldly go”). The rule is incorrect; no grammarian these days considers it wrong (though lots of teachers still repeat it). The rule has no real basis (it derives from the fact that, in Latin, infinitives are only one word. Thus, since you can’t split an infinitive in Latin, you can’t in English. Pretty useless logic – we’re speaking English, not Latin, and infinitives are two words, not one. Not to mention Tmesis.)

Sometimes, people carry this over to mean you can’t put a word that splits up a two-word verb (He had just eaten), and evidently this devolved to mean you can’t split the subject and the verb.

It’s the grammatical version of “telephone”: starting with a “rule,” and then garbling as you go along.

  1. A misplaced modifier, as batsto’s post indicates, is a modifer that appears to be doing its modifying to something other than it was intended to. Classic example of such a solecism, though far from the only instances where it occurs, is the dangling participle.

“Walking down the road, the old house appeared to be well lit.”

Well, the old house probably was not walking down the road, unless Baba Yaga lived there. Insert “As we were…” at the beginning, and you have a subordinate clause clarifying how you came to know the illumination level of the old house.

“One man in a million does not know the proper way to resolve a quadratic equation.”

And the other 999,999 do? Probably not what the writer meant. Move the “not” to modify the “one man in a million” to get the sense of what he was trying to say – that resolving a quadratic is a relatively rare skill.

  1. This is a classic “false rule” – clarity is often achieved by keeping subject and verb relatively close together, but scrupulously avoiding the insertion of a modifier will preclude some carefully constructed sentences that convey precise meaning. Consider the variations on “I only have eyes for you.” The “only” precisely where it is, separating subject and verb, conveys a meaning that “only” anywhere else in that sentence would not do – and there are six well-formed English sentences with “only” placed before or after each other word in the sentence, which makes it an excellent example, and each has a distinct meaning.

However, a long phrase or clause separating subject and verb will in fact cause loss of clarity, so to the extent that it recommends avoiding such constructions, there is a point to it.

The absolute perfect definition-by-example, if perhaps inappropriate for high school, for Tmesis is “T-fuckin’-mesis.” :slight_smile:

Lemme just emphasize that the second rule listed is absolute nonsense. Sheer poppycock. It may be true in some cases, perhaps even most, that clarity is served by keeping the subject and verb together (though I doubt it), but this is a matter of style, not grammar. And style rules can be helpful, but they’re not absolutes - and no writing is worse than the awkward writing of someone scrupulously applying these silly rules rather than taking pains to write clearly and well.

Style and grammar are entirely separate things, and students of composition would be far better served by being taught the difference rather than learning these rules as a matter of dogma. Stick the adverb where it best fits; read the sentence and figure out what sounds best. That’s the goal of style rules anyway; decent manuals of style are useful, but never let the rules they espouse get in the way of the actual goal of elegant writing.

As for the first rule, while I’m a student of linguistics and have a decent knowledge of English grammar, I’m not fluent enough in the pseudogrammar pushed by Strunk and White (et alia) to interpret it. Suffice it to say that it’s probably not worth worrying about. (However, dangling participles, as mentioned by Polycarp, do indeed sound awful. Avoid them.)

Indeed, avoid them like the plague. :wink:

:confused: It would have been funnier if your response had contained a dangling participle.

When dangling, you should avoid using participles.

You have been wooshed by Strunk and White. :wink:

What do participles dangle with?

My favorite example of a misplaced modifier: “Dressed only in a light lemon sauce, she slid the fish into the oven.”

And my favorite type of misplaced modifier is the squinting modifier: “I told her yesterday I won the lottery.” Did I win it yesterday, or did I tell her yesterday?


Once you are tuned into misplaced modifiers, you will see them everywhere and they will make reading very jarring. You are all set for one thought and suddenly the subject switches to something else and you have to reinterpret what you have read. They are so common that it’s getting so I assume they will be there and am jarred when they aren’t!!

My co-worker said to me, “As budget administrator, I would think you would be trying to save money.” Only problem is, I am the budget administrator, not she. In speech it’s certainly more forgiveable, but in writing it’s very annoying.

Probably my biggest grammar pet peeve right now. :wink:

I’m guessing this is a very subtle ‘whoosh’. There’s a rather tired list that went around by email, containing common grammatical errors, in which each rule contained the very error it summarized. One of them was, “Avoid cliches like the plague.”

I don’t think it’s what the original poster was looking for, but rhetoric sometimes uses a figure known as the “transferred epithet” (also known as hypallage for all you Greek scholars).

This is where an adjective, commonly associated with another word in the sentence because of its connotation, is grammatically tied to a different noun in the sentence, one to which it strictly shouldn’t apply. It is therefor a type of metaphor closely associated with metonomy (a noun that stands in for something it is closely associated with, e.g. a letter written “in my hand” is in my own handwriting).

Examples: “The general made a cowardly retreat.” Strictly speaking, retreats aren’t cowardly; it is the general who is cowardly. “The man made a drunken promise.” The man, not the promise, is drunk.

Interesting, CJJ*. I’ve wondered about that one ever since one summer day when I was out working in my garden. As I reached for my canteen, I said to myself “Weeding is thirsty work”. But of course, it’s not the work that’s thirsty, it’s me.

And I hasten to point out, in light of the previous conversation, that “Avoid cliches like the plague” isn’t a grammatical rule, but a stylistic one.

I’m not sure I get this example. It might be because"having eyes" is colloquial and not literal.

I only “have eyes” for you. - normally means you are the one single person I have a crush on.

Same meaning, it seems, for:
I “have eyes” for only you.
I “have eyes” for you only.

But, literally,
I have only eyes for you. AND
I only have eyes for you.

could both mean that I bring you eyeballs, and nothing else

Please explain your six distinct meanings.

Gracie Allen was wonderful in terms of misplaced modifiers, and having sudden twists to meanings.

My favorite Gracie-ism: “She was the man who owns the grocery store’s sister.”