Modifier Monday: Squinting Modifiers

For the next couple Mondays, I’m going to be covering common modifier misuses. Watch for dangling modifiers next week and misplaced modifiers in two weeks.

A “squinting” modifier is one that is placed between two phrases so that it could be modifying either one. It’s called a squinting modifier because it’s unclear which phrase it is “looking” toward. For example: “Climbing a mountain quickly gets you in shape.” It’s impossible to tell whether the modifier, quickly, is pointing at the first verb, climbing, or the second, gets.

DSC01359
I just climbed a mountain, not so quickly though. And I’m squinting. Location: Hatcher Pass, Alaska. Photo by my husband.

To clarify whether you have to quickly climb mountains in order to get in shape, or whether the act of climbing mountains will get you in shape quickly, you’d need to restructure the sentence. Sometimes all you need to do is move the modifier closer to one side, for instance, “Climbing a mountain quickly will get you in shape,” or “Climbing a mountain will quickly get you in shape.” Here, I changed one of the verbs so now there isn’t ambiguity between “climbing” and “gets.” When you have two different verb tenses, placement of the modifier can make it clear which one it’s pointing to.

You can also simply move the modifier to one end of the sentence without changing anything else:

“Quickly climbing a mountain gets you in shape.”

“Climbing a mountain gets you in shape quickly.”

Or you can change the wording more drastically, as in the following examples:

“A quick climb up a mountain gets you in shape.”

“To get in shape quickly, go climb a mountain.”

Usually, a sentence can be worded in multiple different ways. Avoiding the ambiguity caused by a squinting modifier is really pretty easy!

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