Modifiers, Interrupted

As linguists, our work often times requires translating complex texts that include sentences and structures of all lengths and types. Given that sentence structures are often different from one language to another, the experienced linguist is well aware that a good quality translation may sometimes require the re-ordering of clauses so as to flow more naturally in the target text. For example, translators specializing in Spanish into English translations are certainly aware of the former’s liberal sentence structure compared with the latter’s more rigid subject-predicate order.

Of course, when restructuring sentence clauses, it is important that we are aware of an issue that can creep its way into our translation if we are not paying close attention: misplaced modifiers. Essentially, misplaced modifiers occur when a sentence component—be it a phrase, clause, or even a single word—is placed too far away from the subject (noun or pronoun) that it describes. That is, the modifier is interrupted too extensively by text not directly related to said modification, resulting in, at best, ambiguity, and, at worst, nonsensical descriptions.

So, what do misplaced modifiers look like? Let’s take a look at some examples:

The student was placed with a new teacher with several learning problems.

While the intention of this text is obvious, what it actually states, grammatically speaking, is that this student really should be given a new teacher!

Two homes had been reported as broken into by the police department.

For us grammar purists, this sentence actually means that this town has a serious problem with their police force.

Joe was notified that he had been kicked off the team by his mom.

Poor Joe…what a cruel mother!

Even if we can assume what these sentences intend to say despite their misplaced modifiers, their use is nevertheless not only syntactically incorrect, but, simply put, sound sloppy. So, how can we clean them up? There are many options available. Below are some of the most common, applied to the above examples:

Use commas to separate the modifier:

The student, who had several learning problems, was placed with a new teacher.

Follow the order subject-verb-direct/indirect object:

The police department reported that two homes had been broken into.

For passive voice constructions, place the modifier directly after the past participle:

Joe was notified by his mother that he had been kicked off the team.

As linguists, cognizance of misplaced modifiers is key to avoiding their occurrence, especially when translating between languages that follow very different rules in terms of sentence structure. Here at Trusted Translations, you can rest assured that our linguists are trained and experienced in avoiding this and other common pitfalls.