It is not every sentence that is not a bad sentence that is a good sentence. And what amounts to a good sentence in one case may not be a good sentence in another. What I am saying is, a sentence may be correct in the grammatical sense while remaining problematic. Such a sentence may confuse the reader, lack internal harmony, sound ridiculous, or be inelegant for some other reason. Over time, experts have identified various issues that cause these aesthetical problems in sentence construction. We will be looking at some of them on this page in the coming months. Today, we look at modifiers.
A modifier tells you more about a concept. For example, in the phrase, “the tall girl”, “tall” tells you more about “girl”. Tall is a modifier. In the statement, “He spoke badly”, “badly” is a modifier because it tells you how the person spoke.
A modifier can be a word, a phrase or a clause. The modifier is meant to hit the concept the way an arrow is supposed to hit its target.
Consider this statement.
- Having gone to bed early, Senibo woke up on time.
The participial phrase, “having gone to bed early”, expresses an action but not the doer of that action. We find that in the main clause and it is Senibo.
A modifier is said to be “dangling” when the concept it modifies is not stated in the sentence.
Consider these examples.
- Having trained very hard, winning the competition was easy.
- Having finished cooking, dinner was served.
In the first sentence, who trained very hard? The sentence says it is “winning the competition”. But that doesn’t make sense. To correct the sentence, we must decide who the subject is, insert it in the sentence and tweak the words a bit, while being careful to retain the same meaning.
- Having trained very hard, Sunday won the competition easily.
In the second sentence, we find the action, “having finished cooking”, but the doer is missing. We know it was not “dinner” that finished cooking. That sentence can easily be fixed by finding out the subject and adding it to the main clause and replacing the passive voice with the active voice.
- Having finished cooking, Rachael served dinner.
Sometimes you have to do more than insert a word. You may even have to recast the entire sentence. Consider these.
- Having had an early dinner, itshould be easy to go to sleep on time.
- To make her okpa turn out well this time, the nuts had to be soaked longer.
In the first sentence, who had an early dinner? We know it is not “it”. To rewrite the sentence, decide who had dinner. We might then have a sentence like this.
- Since I had an early dinner, it should be easy for me to go to sleep on time.
Here, we have turned the participial phrase into a clause and named the doer of the action in that clause. It is no longer “dangling” because it does not modify any other part of the sentence.
In the second sentence, who wanted to make her okpa turn out well? We might rewrite that sentence by fusing the phrase and the main clause together.
- Nkiru made her okpa turn out well this time by soaking the nuts longer.
A former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Victor Attah, once asked journalists to stop calling him Obong Architect Victor Attah. It should be Architect Obong Victor Attah, he admonished. He explained that he is not a chief architect but an architect who is a chief.
Here is a title that recently appeared in the Vanguard newspaper. “Driver docked for impregnating 16-yr-old neighbour’s daughter.”
According to this headline, someone’s neighbour who is 16 is about to become a grandmother.
The above instances highlight the problem of misplaced modifiers.
When too much or unnecessary distance separates a modifier from what it is supposed to modify, the result is called a misplaced modified. Misplaced modifiers often lead to confusing, awkward or illogical sentences.
Sentences with misplaced modifiers are common in everyday speech but you should keep misplaced modifiers out of serious writing.
Consider the sentences used in the examples below.
An adjective is “misplaced” when it is wrongly separated from the noun it modifies.
- I had a spicy bowl of ikokore for dinner.
- The embezzled state government’s money runs into billions of dollars.
The first sentence above suggests that the bowl was spicy whereas it is the food that was spicy. We can easily correct it by moving the modifier closer to the word it modifies.
- I had a bowl of spicy ikokore for dinner.
The second sentence suggests that the state government was embezzled. We should move the adjective close to the noun it modifies.
- The state government’s embezzled money runs into billions of dollars.
The placement of an adjective can also alter the meaning of a sentence. Consider and compare these two sentences, for example.
- The school’s burnt cafeteria has been rebuilt.
- The burnt school’s cafeteria has been rebuilt.
The first sentence says the cafeteria belonging to the school was burnt.
The second sentence says the school was burnt.
As is the case with adjectives, a misplaced adverb can cause confusion, lead to awkward sentences and alter meanings. Consider this example.
- Dad read what I wrote slowly.
The above suggests that I wrote slowly whereas what the writer most likely had in mind is different.
- Dad slowly read what I wrote.
Now, consider these three sentences which give us three different meanings.
- Just Jelili ate the fruits. (Only Jelili ate the fruits.)
- Jelili just ate the fruits. (Jelili ate the fruits just now.)
- Jelili ate just the fruits. (Jelili ate only the fruits.)
Apart from “just”, other adverbs that behave similarly include “only”, “nearly”, “merely” and “almost”.
When phrases are misplaced, they may end up modifying the wrong noun. Consider this example.
- Children skipped happily on the road wearing nothing.
Road wearing nothing?
We move the modifier and rewrite the sentence thus.
- Children wearing nothing skipped happily on the road.
The same problems of illogicality and possible wrong attribution that trail the other cases also apply to clauses.
Consider this example, which gives us something quite hilarious.
- Would you believe I saw Izogie wearing a cap on her head that was made of solid metal?
Let’s save that head from being made of metal. We rewrite the sentence like this.
- Would you believe I saw Izogie wearing a cap that was made of solid metal on her head?
Beware of creating sentences with two possible meanings or a meaning different from the one you intended.
In John 23:43 we read something like, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.”
Written as it is above, that line is capable of two meanings. Note there was no punctuation in the original language the text was translated from. In most Bibles, it reads, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” But a few read, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Note how the movement of the comma alters the meaning. I have seen two fellows have a drawn out argument over this verse. One said the first rendering was more accurate since the speaker was telling his companion that they would meet in paradise that same day. The other said the second was more accurate since the verse applied to the day the speaker was making his promise and had nothing to do with the day they would meet.
Fortunately, you can avoid this problem in your own writing and have clearly understandable sentences like these.
- Today, I tell you truly that you will be with me in paradise.
- Truly I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.
This statement has a problem similar to the above.
- The technician said on Tuesday he will complete the work.