Can you see/hear what’s wrong with this sentence – a sentence I heard in a TV news bulletin.
“Protesters took on police armed with rocks.”
Now, I reckon it was the protesters not the police who were armed with rocks – but the way the sentence is written, it sounds as if the police were armed with rocks.
Technically, this mistake is called a “misplaced modifier”. The modifier attaches to the closest noun.
It’s so easy to fix – you place the modifying words ‘armed with rocks’ closest to the people who ‘have the rocks’.
So the sentence should read:
Protesters armed with rocks took on police.
Armed with rocks, protesters took on police.
I understand the problems reporters face writing under intense time pressure – however it’s so easy to get into good writing habits. It’s about 1. being aware of problems and 2. knowing how to fix the problems.
I always remember the way a writing professor explained misplaced modifiers – with this visual and memorable example:
Mary surprised Bill wearing her new negligee.
Who was wearing the negligee? Mary or Bill?
The way it’s written, the new negligee is ‘attached’ to Bill.
Maybe, it was the case that Bill was indeed the one wearing the new negligee.
However, if Mary was the one wearing the negligee – you need to place the negligee closest to Mary.
Wearing her new negligee, Mary surprised Bill.
Bill was surprised by Mary wearing her new negligee.
I trust this visual and memorable example will help you remember to put the modifier in its proper place in a sentence.