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Getting Lost in Translation: One Grammar Mistake You May Not Know You’re Making

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Playing a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage, I think Bill Murray is incredible in ‘Lost in Translation.’

If you think nothing is wrong with this sentence, keep reading. (And if you know what’s wrong with this sentence, keep reading; there’s something in here for you too.)

The above sentence is a classic example of a misplaced modifier.

If you don’t know what a modifier is, don’t fret. A modifier is pretty self-explanatory: it’s a word, phrase, or clause that modifies something else in a sentence. Modifiers add detail and provide descriptions to sentences. If I say, “I ate a sugar cookie,” the adjective “sugar” modifies the word “cookie.” It describes the cookie in greater detail, and it tells people exactly which type of cookie I ate.

Modifiers are sneaky little fellows though. They’re easy to misplace. A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying word/phrase/clause is placed too far away from the word it modifies. We can’t toss a modifier any old place in a sentence and assume readers will know what we mean. Modifiers are a little persnickety; they have to be placed in exactly the right spot.

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Modifiers also have a wicked sense of humor. When people misplace modifiers, they end up unintentionally and unwittingly saying things they didn’t mean. Oftentimes those things are hilarious, illogical, absurd, or all three at once.

According to the above sentence, I play a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage. (With some serious stage makeup, it’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not what I meant.)

We all want to say what we mean and mean what we say. But when we misplace modifiers, things get lost in translation.

The best-case scenario: readers laugh hysterically when what was intended to be a serious sentence winds up being hilarious thanks to a cunning, uproarious modifier. Credibility is crushed.

The worst-case scenario: readers are befuddled and addled by sentences that make no sense due to misplaced modifiers. Credibility is crushed.

Neither scenario sounds good, so here’s a guide to those cunning and hard-to-grasp things known as modifiers: how to spot a misplaced modifier and how to use modifiers correctly. Here’s how to avoid getting lost in modifier translation.

Getting Lost in Translation: One Grammar Mistake You May Not Know Youre Making image Lost in Translation6

Misplace too many modifiers, and your readers will start to look as confused as Bill Murray.

Misplaced Modifiers: What We Mean vs. What We Say

After months of collecting dust in the garage, my dad finally got a chance to use his golf clubs.

What I said: My dad spent months in the garage collecting dust. I feel really badly for him. Why did he stay there so long, and more importantly why didn’t anyone notice him? I just hope he was ok because he has horrible allergies.

What I meant: My dad’s golf clubs spent months in the garage collecting dust. My dad finally got a chance to use them.

Why things got lost in translation: “After months of collecting dust in the garage” is the modifier. It’s supposed to modify “golf clubs.” But it’s nowhere near “golf clubs.” Because it’s placed directly before the words “my dad,” it winds up not modifying “golf clubs” and modifying “my dad” instead.

How to say what I meant: My dad finally got a chance to use his golf clubs, which spent months in the garage collecting dust.

 

Quick and easy, I order takeout when I don’t have time to cook during the work week.

What I said: Did I just call myself quick and easy?! I thought this blog was PG!

What I meant: Takeout is a quick and easy option for dinner. When I’m short on time during the work week, I order it.

Why things got lost in translation: “Quick and easy” is intended to modify takeout. Because it’s placed before “I,” it ends up modifying “I,” causing me to unintentionally venture into lurid subject matter.

How to say what I meant: When I don’t have time to cook during the work week, I order takeout because it’s quick and easy.

 

Sitting in the fridge for years, my aunt had to throw out the jar of pickles.

What I said: Either the fridge is large enough to accommodate my aunt, or my aunt is tiny enough to fit in the fridge. Either way, she must have been cold in there.

What I meant: The jar of pickles, not my aunt, sat in the fridge for years.

Why things got lost in translation: “Sitting in the fridge for years” winds up modifying “my aunt” instead of “the jar of pickles.”

How to say what I meant: The jar of pickles sat in the fridge for years, so my aunt had to throw it out.

 

Having melted after sitting out in the sun, my sister wasn’t able to eat the ice cream.

What I said: The Wicked Witch of the West melted because of water. My sister melted because of the sun. It was strange and tragic, and we’re still seeking a medical explanation.

What I meant: The ice cream melted after sitting out in the sun, and consequently my sister couldn’t eat it.

Why things got lost in translation: “Having melted after sitting out in the sun” modifies “my sister” rather than “the ice cream.”

How to say what I meant: My sister was unable to eat the ice cream because it melted in the sun.

 

How to Spot a Misplaced Modifier

Whenever you see an introductory phrase (official name: participle phrase) at the beginning of a sentence, your inner grammarian alert should go off. These phrases practically beg to be misplaced. Don’t cave. Instead, look at the word that immediately follows the phrase. Is this what the phrase should modify? If it is, you’re good. If not, rewrite the sentence.

Take a look at the sentence with which this post began:

Playing a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage, I think Bill Murray is incredible in ‘Lost in Translation.’

What word follows the phrase “playing a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage”? The word “I” does. Am I the one playing a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage? I’m not. Bill Murray is the one playing a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage. So the modifying phrase is misplaced. Here’s one way to rewrite this sentence:

I think Bill Murray is incredible in ‘Lost in Translation,’ in which he plays a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage.

Here’s one more example of how to determine whether or not a modifier is misplaced:

Playing a young, married woman, Scarlett Johansson is fantastic in ‘Lost in Translation.’

Should “playing a young married woman” modify “Scarlett Johansson”? Well, Scarlett Johansson plays a young, married woman in the film, so it should.

Misplaced modifiers come in many forms, and I focused on only one here. And while modifiers purport to be deceptive little devils evading detection by writers and proofreaders, I think they’re a little misunderstood. All they really want is to be united with the word they’re supposed to modify. Like Bill Murray, they just want to be found.

Getting Lost in Translation: One Grammar Mistake You May Not Know Youre Making image Bill Murray Lost in Translation6

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Comments on this Article: 5

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  1. Erica says:

    Great article. I do have to say that I did not think for one moment that you were playing a middle-aged man.

    • Olivia Roat says:

      Thank you, Erica! And yes, I’m unable to pass for Bill Murray (and any middle-aged man for that matter) :)

  2. Kirsty says:

    Love the article, images of dads in garages and aunts in fridges really made me chuckle.

  3. Tudor says:

    “The jar of pickles sat in the fridge for years, so my aunt had to throw it out”

    Have you not just made the mistake you are trying to explain how not make? This sentence now appears to say that your aunt threw out the fridge?

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