Introducing: Malaprop Monday

A malaprop is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar one. In fact, the name of my blog is based on a malaprop!

Each Malaprop Monday, I’ll tell you about a malaprop, the correct phrase and its origin, as well as the meaning of the incorrect word so you can avoid misusing it in the same way.

For my first Malaprop Monday, I’ll start off with one I hear/see frequently: supposably/supposively instead of supposedly.

Neither of the two incorrect words is actually a word. However, they both sound similar enough to “supposedly” that if someone says one of them aloud, you might miss the mistake. I think this has something to do with why it’s so common – a person might say
“supposably” all the time and never be informed that they’re saying it wrong.

“Supposably” uses the ending “ably,” a form of the adjective “able.” This misuse suggests that something might be supposed; that one is “able” to suppose it. This is different from the meaning of “supposedly” – something that is supposed.

There’s your malaprop for the week. If you know of any malaprops you’d like to see me write about, let me know in the comments!

Modifier Monday: Use Sparingly

Hey! Happy Monday!

So, I had a feeling this would happen eventually but I’m kind of running out of things to say about modifiers. This will be my last Modifier Monday post. Check out my new Monday theme next week!

I’ve talked about how not to dangle, misplace or squint a modifier. I talked about how prepositional phrases can function as modifiers, and I talked about weak modifiers. For my final Modifier Monday post, I’m going to talk about overuse of modifiers.

There are a few reasons why writers should avoid overuse of modifiers. First, too many modifiers can clog up your writing and make it difficult to read. Second, a weak verb + adverb combination, or noun + adjective combination, can often be replaced with a verb or noun that is strong enough to stand on its own. And finally, to quote my favorite Strunk & White rule, omit needless words. You’ll often find when proofreading your work that a lot of your words can simply be deleted without harming the meaning or tone of your writing.

Look at the following examples:

  1. Too many modifiers slow the pace and cause confusion
    1. With modifiers: “The sleek, black horse, with long legs and bulging muscles, walked toward the humming electrical fence surrounding his enclosure, staring beyond it with his huge sad eyes as though he longed to jump over and run away into the dark, thick forest on the other side.”
    2. Worded more minimally: “The black racehorse approached the electrical fence around his enclosure and gazed longingly into the lush forest on the other side.”
  2. Weak noun/adjective or verb/adverb combination should usually be replaced with a single, stronger word:
    1. Weak: “I ran quickly across the field.”
    2. Stronger: “I sprinted across the field.”
    3. Weak: “The enormous house sat majestically atop the huge hill.”
    4. Stronger: “The mansion sat majestically atop the mountain.”
  3. Omit needless words: also see my post on weak modifiers. A lot of the time, you can simply remove a weak modifier since it doesn’t do much anyway. However, sometimes it’s a good idea to replace it with a stronger one.
    1. Weak: “I was very scared.”
    2. Stronger: “I was scared.” Or for greater impact, “I was terrified.”

This isn’t to say that modifiers are all bad. Sometimes a writer will use modifiers to intentionally slow the reader’s pace, either to lend a contemplative atmosphere or to jar the reader, or to lead up to something with suspense. But if you’re going to pull it off, your modifier use should be intentional and calculated – don’t just throw in flowery words in order to sound smart or meet a word count.

This wraps up my Modifier Monday series. Check back next week for a new Monday theme!

Modifier Monday: Misplaced Modifiers

Also check out my posts on dangling modifiers and squinting modifiers.

A misplaced modifier is a word or phrase placed incorrectly in a sentence so that it appears to modify the wrong word. Generally speaking, a modifier should be as close as possible to the word it’s modifying to avoid confusion. For example:

“While walking down the street after it rained, I saw a soggy child’s book lying on the sidewalk.”

While both “soggy” and “child’s” are modifiers to “book,” “child’s” is a noun so it looks like “soggy” is modifying it and not “book.” To fix this, put the adjective “soggy” next to “book” and it won’t sound like the book belonged to a soggy child.

“While walking down the street after it rained, I saw a child’s soggy book lying on the sidewalk.”

Here’s an example of a misplaced modifying phrase:

“Tired of being last all the time, my delight at finally winning a race showed all over my face – even if there was only one other person in my age group.”

Can you find it? hint: the modifier is everything before the comma. The word that it’s modifying is the noun closest to it. Since delight is a feeling and incapable of having other feelings, this sentence actually makes no sense. Here’s a better way to word it:

“Tired of being last all the time, I was delighted to finally win a race – even if I was the only person in my age group.”

Now the phrase at the beginning of the sentence is modifying “I.”

A common approach that leads to misplaced modifiers is that of using the passive voice. For example, when you change the following sentence from passive to active voice, the misplaced modifier fixes itself. This is something you should always check for in your writing as it can be easy to overlook.

“Eagerly awaiting ice cream, the picnic table was climbed on by the group of rowdy children.”

Sounds like the picnic table is eager for some ice cream. What?

This is better:

“Eagerly awaiting ice cream, the rowdy children climbed on the picnic table.”

See how by using the active voice, I made the sentence easier to understand and fixed the misplaced modifier at the same time?

This wraps up my three-week series on common modifier mistakes. Check out the other two posts here and here. And remember to always watch out for squinting, dangling and misplaced modifiers in your writing!

Modifier Monday: Dangling Modifiers

Also see last week’s post on Squinting Modifiers.

A dangling modifier is one that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. Dangling modifiers are most often found at the beginning of a sentence, and they usually begin with a verbal. In the following examples, I have bolded the verbal and italicized the whole modifier so you can see what I mean:

Having gone on a long hike, water ran out.

After eating everything in the kitchen, a shopping trip was in order.

Coming home after a long day at work, a beer was necessary.

These sentences do not have a clear subject to which the dangling modifier belongs. There are two ways to fix them. The first is to add a subject to the modifier, turning it into a complete sentence:

When the group went on a long hike, water ran out.

After Suzie ate everything in the kitchen, a shopping trip was in order.

When Bill came home after a long day at work, a beer was necessary.

The second way to fix these sentences, which leaves the modifier intact, is to add the subject to the second part of the sentence like this:

Having gone on a long hike, the group ran out of water.

After eating everything in the kitchen, Suzie had to go grocery shopping.

Coming home after a long day at work, Bill felt that a beer was necessary.

The second solution is usually recommended since it makes the sentence active and more clearly answers the question of “who?” For instance, in the example where Suzie eats everything in the kitchen, the first solution doesn’t make it clear who has to go shopping. Of course, it could be that Suzie is a child whose mother does all the grocery shopping, in which case you could say, “after Suzie ate everything in the kitchen, a shopping trip was in order for her mother.” Context is always important.

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!