Grandma\’s Tales

November 29, 2006

Grammar – 16 What is that again? Misplaced modifiers

Filed under: Language — Rajesh @ 10:13 pm

If you had been watching NDTV today, you couldn’t have missed this piece of news. Bharti Yadav, a key witness in the Nitish Katara case came, spoke in camera and left. It appeared again and again in the scroll box at the bottom of the screen even as other bits of news were being telecast. And one of the sentences that carried the news went like this:

Bharti Yadav left the court with her face covered in a Maruti Zen.

I swear I’m not making this up. I can also assure you this is not an isolated error. I come across such sentences routinely everywhere – in newspapers, novels, announcements. You do know what is wrong here, don’t you? The phrase “in a Maruti Zen”, which adds information to the verb “left” is in the wrong place. It is a “misplaced modifier”.

A modifier is a word or phrase that acts like a value add-on to a noun or a verb. It modifies a noun or a verb. So, logically, it should be placed closest to the noun or verb it talks about.

Here, “left the court” needs to stay as it is. You cannot split it to park our “Maruti Zen” near “left”. That is because “the court” is the object that completes the sense of the verb. It answers the question, “left what?” So the parking space for “in a Maruti Zen” is next to the “the court” parking meter. To set right the absurdity of Bharti Yadav wrapping her face in a Maruti Zen, we need to rejig the sentence to read:

Bharti Yadav left the court in a Maruti Zen, with her face covered.

Better still, With her face covered, Bharti Yadav left the court in a Maruti Zen. Either way, our car stays close to Bharti Yadav as a whole, not to her face alone.

I can hear some of you keying in furiously: Why can’t I just place a comma after “face” in the original sentence? That would read:

Bharti Yadav left the court with her face covered, in a Maruti Zen. Still absurd. That’s because you’re asking your reader to solve a puzzle instead of getting to the news. What happened in a Maruti Zen? Oh, BY left in it! How much time do you have to read the scroll box ? Should I get the news or should I be playing games?

Verdict (alas, not in the Katara case) : Write your sentences in a way that can be understood without trouble. Or you’ll lose your reader.

Ben’s body was found by a janitor in the Emerald Tower who heard the shot.

I found this gem in Compelling Evidence by Steve Martini. To me such a sentence in a novel is inexcusable. The author had time enough to edit the draft, didn’t he?

Of course the author wants to maintain the suspense till the end. Who killed Ben? (Don’t know.)
Was the body in the Emerald Tower? (Don’t know. The sentence says the janitor was in the Emerald Tower, not the body, ha, ha!)
Who heard the shot? (the Emerald Tower, ha ha!)

Is this the suspense in the story? Confusing sentences? Are we unravelling the sentences or the plot? Ok, let’s do away with this unintended and quite unnecessary mix-up.

Ben’s body was found in the Emerald Tower by a janitor who heard the shot. Fine. Remember the rule: Modifying words and phrases are placed closest to the nouns and verbs they modify. Read this and you will know what I mean. This sentence was picked up from the Classified Ads section of a newspaper.

For sale, piano, the property of a musician, with carved legs.
And this headline: Not a time to rejoice for asthmatics. Why would you rejoice for asthmatics? Cruel. Change to Not a time for asthmatics to rejoice. The story was about firing crackers during Diwali.

Now for the quiz. How would you recast these sentences to make sense?

[1] He visited the battlefield where Napoleon was defeated in his holidays.
[2] I spent the last three days of my holidays in a chair with a swollen leg.
[3] A young man wrote these verses who has long since been dead for his own amusement.
[4] The cop said that the prisoner, seizing a brick full of rage, knocked down the lawyer.
[5] In thirty-seven wrecks only five lives were fortunately lost. (change for making the news a little less horrifying)
[6] He was very fond of her; he thought of marrying her more than once.

Happy jigging!

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6 Comments »

  1. 1>”Since I have to go to my village to sell my land along with my wife, please sanction me one-week leave.”

    2>”Since I’ve to go to the cremation ground at 10 o-clock and I may not return, please grant me half day casual leave”

    3>”As I am studying in this school I am suffering from headache. I request you to leave me today”

    Comment by Anonymous — November 30, 2006 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

  2. Hi!

    I accidentally got here. You remind me a lot of my High School English teacher. I loved those classes and to my eternal regret didn’t pursue my interests in literature.

    Anyway, my responses:

    [1] In his holiday, he visited the battlefield where Napoleon was defeated.
    [2] With a swollen leg, I spent the last three days of my holidays in a chair.
    [3] A young man who has long since been dead wrote these verses for his own amusement.
    [4] The cop said that the prisoner full of rage, seizing a brick, knocked down the lawyer.
    [5] Fortunately, in thirty-seven wrecks, only five lives were lost.
    [6] He was very fond of her; more than once, he thought of marrying her.

    Thanks and keep them coming.

    Comment by Subrat — December 1, 2006 @ 11:20 am | Reply

  3. [1] In his holidays he visited the battlefield where Napoleon was defeated.
    [2] With a swollen leg, I spent the last three days of my holidays in a chair.
    [3] A young man, who has long since been dead, wrote these verses for his own amusement.
    [4] The cop said that the prisoner, full of rage, knocked down the lawyer seizing a brick.
    [5] Fortunately, in thirty-seven wrecks only five lives were lost.
    [6] He was very fond of her; more than once he thought of marrying her.

    Comment by Rashmi — December 1, 2006 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  4. Hi Subrat,
    Happy to have you here. You loved your English classes, so you must have had a wonderful teacher. Wish I could meet her. Please let me tell you it’s never late to pursue your interest in literature. Your writing gets better, has more balance and substance as you get on in years. Like wine, says my daughter. So never give up!
    And you know very well your answers are right, don’t you? You do your teacher proud.
    Sure you’ll see more on this.

    Hi Rashmi,
    Happy to see you. For question four, please take a look at what Subrat has done. Your sentence could mean the lawyer was seizing a brick. He could not have been a lawyer much longer if he did that.
    The others are right!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — December 1, 2006 @ 8:57 pm | Reply

  5. I have this tendency to go by my gut feel when it comes to grammar, thus letting my sub-concious(?) to do the figuring out on whether something is a well-made sentence or not.

    As you would expect, I make a few errors in grammar, but I find that my gut-feel is a good guide most of the time. (Atleast, within my limited/basic handling of the English language)

    The one sentence that you have corrected above but which I could’ve gotten wrong seems to be – Not a time to rejoice for asthmatics

    I am trying to equate this to other similar sentences I could come across. For example, I might title a news article about the impending super-hot summer as – Not a time to rejoice for Chennaiites or Not a time to rejoice, for Chennaiites.

    And you are telling me that, Not a time for Chennaiites to rejoice is the right way to put it.

    Hmm. You should be right. But just that my gut-feel would have misled me here. That’s probably the limit of it.

    Comment by swami — December 5, 2006 @ 5:24 am | Reply

  6. And by the way, the one thing that eludes my gut feel is the positioning of the comma. So much so, that I overdo it! 😦

    Comment by swami — December 5, 2006 @ 5:27 am | Reply


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