Understanding a misplaced modifier

Some grammar-checking programs will highlight something and warn you that you have a “squinting modifier.” Squeeze your eyes almost closed and you can see why it’s called that.

Take a sentence like “Journalists who misuse modifiers often confuse their readers.” Is it saying that journalists often misuse modifiers, or that they often confuse their readers?

“Often” is cross-eyed, looking before and after for a phrase to modify, and readers will do so as well. One definition of “squinting” is “cross-eyed.”

A “squinting modifier” is just a misplaced modifier with a funnier name. (Admit it: It’s fun to say, “squinting.”) As with most misplaced modifiers, the best way to fix them is to move them closer to what they actually modify.

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In our sentence, depending on what was meant, the choices include:

Journalists who often misuse modifiers confuse their readers.

Journalists who misuse modifiers confuse their readers often.

Sometimes, though, the modifier that is “squinting” is looking in only one direction, but could still be misunderstood, as in “The police officer shot the robber with a gun.” Who had the gun? That’s the misplaced modifier, “squinting “backward.

That one is a bit harder to fix, and yet easier: If the officer was the one with the gun, it’s enough to say, “The police officer shot the robber.” Shot includes the idea of a gun. But if the robber was carrying, you can say “The police officer shot the armed robber,” if it was already clear from the context either that there was only one robber or that only one robber had a gun. But if the context made it unclear, or you want to emphasize that it was the perp with the gun who was shot, you can say, “The police officer shot the robber, who had a gun.”

By the way, don’t say “perp.” People will look at you cross-eyed.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of CJR under the headline, "Eyes wide shut."