At a nice hotel in New York recently we saw this sign prominently displayed on the registration desk:
Hearing Impaired Devices Available Upon Request
We have several devices like a cell phone, a tablet, a computer, and so on. None of them, as far as we know, are hearing impaired. But, apparently at this hotel we could request a device that is hearing impaired.
In writing, this is a classic example of a misplaced modifier. A modifier, if we remember or lessons from elementary school, adds additional information to the word or words it precedes or follows. So, in this case, the words “hearing impaired” refer to a characteristic of the device, the word that the preceding words modify. What the sign meant to say is: Devices for the hearing impaired are available upon request.
As we communicate in places like the 140-character Twittersphere, we push for economy of words to get our point across. Sometimes, that means we get a little sloppy with the rules of structure. In the process we undermine clarity for the reader.
There are plenty of examples of misplaced modifiers around, but a few of my favorites were compiled by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison:
She handed out brownies to the children stored in Tupperware. We fix this by moving stored in Tupperware closer to the brownies it modifies, and therefore we release the children who were stored in Tupperware in the original sentence.
Think about what the following sentences actually say and how to fix them:
He held the umbrella over Janet’s head that he got from Delta Airlines.
I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.
Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing. This one has clarity issues on multiple fronts.
One need not know grammar to fix sentences like we see here. A quick trick journalists use is to read their work aloud before they push the send button. The ear almost always provides the edit.