August 2005
Volume 1, Number 4
Table of Contents

Writing Tips
By Gertrude Block

Looking for Misplaced Modifiers; How Usage Trumps 'Correctness'

Q The president was quoted by The New York Times as having said after an interview with the president of Uganda, "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services." Isn't that comment ambiguous? His remark seems to indicate that "the nation" was cleared.

A Yes. Grammatically, the modifier is assumed to be the clause or phrase closest to the modificand (the word being modified). That means that the phrase "cleared by the intelligence services" refers to "the nation" not to "a speech." The meaning was no doubt clarified by subsequent comments, but the president should have said, "I gave a speech, cleared by intelligence services, to the nation of Uganda."

The error of a misplaced modifier is understandable in impromptu statements. In writing, however, misplaced modifiers may sometimes be amusing or damaging. The unintended humor of the following statements occurred in the responses of a few law students to test questions:

• The proposed site was deemed unsafe due to contamination by a leading university scientist.

• The plaintiff was a passenger in a taxi raped by the driver.

• The robber entered the café and threatened the cashier standing at the register with a small-caliber handgun.

In legal documents, misplaced modifiers may be damaging. Courts have been asked so often to construe modifying language that they have given the grammatical rule a legal title, "The Doctrine of the Last Antecedent." In my book (Effective Legal Writing, 5th edition, 1992, pp. 93-96), I give some illustrations from court decisions. Following are two.

Under the Doctrine of the Last Antecedent, courts presume that drafters have placed modifying words next to the language they intend to modify. For example, one court construed the language, "an ad valorem tax on a leasehold interest or government property that is measured by income or volume of transaction" to mean that the governmental property was measured, although the drafter intended to it to mean that the ad valorem tax was being measured. Properly placing the modifying phrase would have avoided the problem: "an ad valorem tax that is measured by income or volume of transaction on a leasehold interest or government property."

One hospital's failure to observe the Doctrine of the Last Antecedent proved costly to the hospital. Before admission to the hospital, persons were asked to sign the following consent form:

• I hereby authorize the Physician or Physicians in charge to administer such treatment and the surgeon to have administered such anesthetic as found necessary to perform this operation which is advisable in the treatment of this patient.

In this case, a patient sued after the surgeon removed her reproductive organs during an appendectomy. The language of the consent form did not indicate that the hospital had received the patient's consent to enlarge the scope of the operation if necessary. The court held against the hospital on the ground that the consent form the patient had signed was so ambiguous as to be almost worthless. Part of the problem was the modifying clause introduced by the word which. Because that clause was placed directly after the word operation, the court construed it to mean that the operation was advisable, although the hospital intended it to mean that the patient consented to whatever treatment was necessary.

Once you become sensitive to the prevalence of misplaced modifiers, you see them in speech and writing everywhere, even in presidential interviews.

Q Here's a sentence for you to comment on. The language is typical of today's writing. This came from the headline of our local newspaper: "Shade gardens aren't that labor intensive; and plants seem to grow slower and steadier."

A As anyone who has checked a dictionary knows, that has many meanings. But the use of that to mean "very" or "so" is not listed in either The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) or Webster's International Dictionary (1996), although it is commonly used with that meaning today. Correctly used, that requires a referend: "The mistake seemed horrendous, but it was not really that bad."

In the same sentence, an additional error results from the substitution of adjectives for adverbs. Instead of the adjectives slower and steadier, the adverbs slowly and steadily should have been used. The disappearance of the traditional use of adverbs is one symptom of language leveling -- the disappearance of categories, tenses and semantic distinctions -- that is common today, probably because English has become mainly a spoken language, because of the dominance of television, radio and even cell phones and e-mail, in which persons "talk" to each other electronically.

Leveling is seen, for example, in the replacement of like for as in many contexts, for example in, "Tell it like it is." The relative pronoun whom has almost disappeared, as in, "The bank robber who the police discovered hiding under a house." The personal pronoun I has replaced me in contexts such as, "Give it to my wife and I." Gerunds and gerundives are ignored, except by persons who studied grammar in primary school, and semantic distinctions, as in the adjectives notorious and famous, widespread and prevalent, and others are lost.

Persons who grieve at the loss of such distinctions often write to me, sometimes expecting me to "do something about it." But because wide and accepted usage always eventually trumps grammatical "correctness," there is nothing that can be done, and the language changes that are widely adopted will become "correct" for future generations. If that were not true, we would all still be speaking Anglo-Saxon!

 

Copyright © 2004 by Pennsylvania Bar Association; Gertrude Block

Copr. (C) 2005 West, a Thomson business. No claim to orig. U.S. govt. works. This article is reprinted with permission from West, a primary sponsor of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.

Gertrude Block, author of Effective Legal Writing for Law Students and Lawyers, is a writing specialist emeritus at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida. You can write to her at the law school (Gainesville, Fla. 32611) or e-mail her at block@law.ufl.edu.

 

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