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Modifiers

1.  Do not use multiple modifiers unless each adds a distinct meaning to the sentence.

Undesirable:

The dangerous, vicious dog could not be the defendant in the case; however, the dog's irresponsible, inattentive owner could be.

Better: The vicious dog could not be the defendant in the case; however, the dog's irresponsible owner could be.

2.  Avoid Squinting Modifiers by Placing Modifiers as Close as Possible to the Words they Modify. Squinting modifiers create confusion about which word they modify. The words that most often cause this problem are adverbs such as "only," "both," and "well." You can avoid this problem by placing modifiers as close as possible to the words they modify. Each of the four sentences below means something different because the modifier "only" has been moved. Writers should never say, "Well, you know what I meant." Instead, you should write precisely what you mean to convey.

First Meaning:

The judge is permitted to impose criminal sanctions only after the parties have a right to be heard.


Second Meaning:

The judge is permitted to impose only criminal sanctions after the parties have a right to be heard.


Third Meaning:

The judge is only permitted to impose criminal sanctions after the parties have a right to be heard.


Fourth Meaning:

Only the judge is permitted to impose criminal sanctions after the parties have a right to be heard.


In the first meaning, the placement of "only" before "after" tells us when the judge may impose criminal sanctions. In the second meaning, the placement of "only" before "criminal sanctions" implies that the judge may not impose other forms of sanctions. In the third meaning, the placement of "only" before "permitted" tells us that while sanctions are permitted to be imposed, they are not required to be imposed. In the fourth meaning, the placement of "only" tells us that the judge -- but not anyone else -- is permitted to impose criminal sanctions.
 

3.  Avoid Dangling Modifiers by Placing Modifiers as Close as Possible to the Words they Modify. Dangling modifiers, which are often found at the beginning of a sentence, leave the reader wondering who or what is being modified. In the first incorrect option below, can you tell who spent several hundred hours on the case? In the second incorrect option, can you tell who had tried hundreds of cases?
 

Incorrect: Because she had spent several hundred hours on the case, Ms. McCormick rejected Ms. Peabody's bill.


First Correct Option:

Ms. McCormick, who had spend several hundred hours on the case, rejected Ms. Peabody's bill.


Second Correct Option:

Because Ms. Peabody had spent several hundred hours on the case, Ms. McCormick rejected her bill.
Incorrect: Having tried hundreds of cases, the client had great confidence in her attorney.


First Correct Option:

The client, who had tried hundreds of cases, had great confidence in her attorney.


Second Correct Option:

The client had great confidence in her attorney, who had tried hundreds of cases.


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