While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published October 22, 2013.
The English language on word order depends.
If that sentence doesn’t convince you, try this:
Take the adverb “only” and place it in different positions in the following sentence.
He said, “I love you.” (Nice thought.)
Only he said, “I love you.” (No one else said it.)
He only said, “I love you.” (He said nothing else.)
He said, “Only I love you.” (No one else does.)
He said, “I love only you.” (He doesn’t love any one else.)
He said, “I love you only.” (His love is exclusive.)
In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White advise that “Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the word they modify.” When modifiers are misplaced, the result is always ambiguity – and often hilarity as well. Consider this Classified Ad: “Piano for sale by lady with carved legs.”
Because English depends on word order, “with carved legs” describes the lady, not the piano. The prepositional phrase needs to be placed in proximity to what it describes – the piano.
Here’s an example from The Harbrace College Handbook. “The doctor said that there was nothing seriously wrong with a smile.” I used Harbrace when I taught college nearly thirty years ago. Surely there have been advances in medicine since then, but smiles have always been terrific, especially when it’s the doctor who’s smiling while delivering the good news. The doctor said with a smile that there was nothing seriously wrong.
The rule for clarity is to always place modifiers as close as possible to the words they describe. Modifers include adverbs, adjectives, phrases or clauses, and they become misplaced when they are too far from what they describe. Here’s an example from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well.
I know, I know – it sometimes seems as if it does take forever to check out, but more likely, the author really meant, After 18 years, the two sisters were reunited at the checkout counter.
Here are some other examples of misplaced prepositional phrases that should make you laugh – and help you keep your words in order.
- “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” -Groucho Marx
- Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. (Was the envelope harnessed to a coach?)
- We found the address he gave me without difficulty. (What’s so hard about giving someone an address?)
- We watched the tree come crashing down with bated breath. (Trees have bated breath?)
- Squirrels ran up the tree with their mouths full of nuts. (Trees have mouths full of nuts?)
- Under the couch, Dave spotted the cat playing with catnip. (What’s Dave doing under the couch?)
- On the hay wagon, the horse pulled the group of students. In the ice, several skaters saw the large crack. (Why is the horse on the wagon, and how did the skaters get in the ice?)
- A lion startled the hunter with a ferocious roar. (Oh, those roaring hunters . . . )
- The profits were deposited safely in the bank from the bake sale. (Did the baked goods taste like money?)
- “He dialed the number at the hospital of Dr. X.” (Who did he dial? Was Dr. X holding him hostage at his hospital?)
While it’s great to make your readers laugh, you can make sure they’re laughing at what you say and not how you’ve said it by observing the English language’s dependency on word order.
Deborah Lee Luskin taught grammar and rhetoric at Columbia, where she earned her PhD in English Literature before moving to Vermont to write novels and raise chickens and daughters. She is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com