One of the many grammatical stumbling blocks that trip up even experienced writers is a little thing called “squinting modifiers.” These words and phrases hide inside prose, making sentences sound confused or ambiguous. Read on to learn more about squinting modifiers and how to keep your writing from being derailed by them.
What Is a Squinting Modifier?
When an adverb or phrase is placed in a sentence so that it can be interpreted as modifying either the words before or after it, then it’s called a “squinting modifier.” Take a look at this example:
Running long distances quickly builds my endurance.
It’s a little hard to tell what this sentence means. Is the person running long distances quickly? Or quickly building their endurance? The squinting modifier here is the word “quickly.” Its position in the sentence makes the meaning murky. Here are some more examples:
Taking time to think clearly improves your test scores.
Helping people often brings pride.
I told my grandma this morning I would visit.
Squinting modifiers are always sandwiched in between two words or phrases. That’s why they’re sometimes called “two-way modifiers.”
Other misplaced modifiers don’t need to be in between two words and phrases. For example, take this famous joke from comedian Groucho Marx:
"One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know!"
In this case, the ambiguity of the misplaced phrase “in my pajamas” is being played for laughs. But, typically, misplaced modifiers do only one thing — confuse a sentence. They make the meaning ambiguous or wrong and should be avoided, unless you’re Groucho Marx.
How to Fix a Squinting Modifier
When speaking, squinting modifiers are rarely an issue because you can convey the meaning with your voice and tone, but writing is a different story.
It may be hard for writers to spot squinting modifiers in their own work. Of course, as the author, you know what you mean. Readers will get confused more easily. Pay attention to adverbs and be wary of words like “only” and “often,” which can subtly change the meaning of a sentence.
Once you spot a squinting modifier, you can usually fix it by rearranging the words in the sentence.
Bad: Having a baby often changes your life.
Better: Often, having a baby changes your life.
Bad: Beating eggs rapidly creates a whipped foam.
Better: Rapidly beating eggs creates a whipped foam.
It can help to read your work out loud or ask a trusted friend to proofread for you to be sure that you’re communicating your meaning without resorting to squinting modifiers.
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