They’re at it again … the modifier-misplacers. Descriptive phrases create a special kind of confusion when they show up in the wrong place. Some might argue that no reasonable person would misunderstand today’s examples.
That’s not the point. Even if you can figure them out, they conjure oddly distracting visual images. Why give your reader a reason to snicker?
Recently, I read an online article about air fresheners. The writer said:
I just got a fantastic device that totally cleaned and freshened my house with four dogs.
I know dogs are loyal, intelligent, and lovable pets. Border collies are so smart they can round up herds of sheep and respond to dozens of special whistle commands. But, without opposable thumbs, how do they operate the vacuum cleaner? The sentence would have been clearer like this:
I just got a fantastic device that cleaned and freshened the air in my house. And I have four dogs!
A local newspaper article describes a chase following a burglary:
Police officers pursued the fleeing suspect on a bicycle.
I was thinking their squad car might have been faster, but the rest of the article implied it was the suspect who was on the bicycle. The report did say police officers (plural), and a bicycle (singular). The first image that popped into my head was two Keystone Cops on a tandem bike singing Bicycle Built for Two. Here’s what the writer might have said instead:
Police officers pursued the suspect, who fled on a bicycle.
Another newspaper article, about a parade, stated:
The band marched in the hot sun, carrying their instruments dressed in wool uniforms.
Again, the visual images. Is it ever so cold that you need a clarinet cozy? A saxophone sweater? A piccolo parka? (OK, that one’s just silly.) The point is that the musicians were wearing hot uniforms, not the instruments. One simple word—and—would have cleared it all up:
The band marched in the hot sun, carrying their instruments and dressed in wool uniforms.
Now that we have that all straightened out, I’m left with one question:
After the four dogs have tidied your house, who cleans up after them?
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