GMAT Grammar in Real Life: Misplaced Modifiers

Jen Dziura —  May 16, 2012 — 5 Comments

As a GMAT instructor, I’m always in the right frame of mind to notice grammatical errors in the world around us.

(One might also say that, as a GMAT instructor, I’m also the sort of nerd who takes iPhone pictures of these grammatical errors.)

gmat grammarWhat’s wrong with this sign?

If you don’t see the problem, take a step back and imagine that you are a Martian with little knowledge of human culture. Might you misunderstand this sign?

The problem is related to the modifier “that endangers workers.” (We cover Modifiers extensively in session 6 of our nine-week course.)

What noun is “that endangers workers” supposed to be modifying? Unsafe conditions. What noun is it actually modifying? Work site.

That is, the sentence says that the work site itself is what endangers workers! Note that even the verb conjugation seems to support this unintended meaning — the verb “endangers” is singular, to match “work site,” rather than plural, to match “conditions.”

How to Fix It: To anonymously report unsafe conditions that endanger workers at this work site, call 311.

Note that the fix puts the modifier “that endanger(s) workers” next to “unsafe conditions.” Noun modifiers should touch the nouns they are modifying.

Here are two similar examples from the news. The first one I lifted from a sad article about a murder (I changed the name):

“Jane Doe was found in the apartment she shared with three roommates face-down in a pool of blood.”

Do you see the problem? It sounds as though all four roommates lived face-down in a pool of blood. (Wow, I hope the rent was low.)

How to Fix It: Jane Doe was found face-down in a pool of blood in the apartment she shared with three roommates.

One more, from NBC Miami:

“After over a month of eating hay for food and snow for water, Ticuic was found frost-bitten, weak and crippled by farm workers.”

“Crippled by farm workers”! Someone needs a copy editor. (The innocent farm workers were actually Ticuic’s rescuers. Ticuic’s physical problems were a result of wandering into the Siberian wilderness after becoming angry that his wife served him cold soup.)

Note that “by farm workers” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverb, modifying the verb “found.” Adverbial modifiers don’t necessarily need to touch the verbs they’re modifying, but they do need to create a clear and sensible meaning.

How to Fix It: After over a month of eating hay for food and snow for water, Ticuic — frost-bitten, weak and crippled — was found by farm workers.

Or:

How to Fix It: Frost-bitten, weak and crippled, Ticuic had spent over a month eating hay for food and snow for water by the time he was found by farm workers.

For a review of Modifiers, see the Manhattan GMAT Sentence Correction book, Chapter 6.

Soon, you’ll spot misplaced modifiers absolutely everywhere and be as annoyed as I am!

Jen Dziura

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