Sunday, October 9, 2011

Today’s Writing Tip Is on Misplaced Modifiers

I’m a big fan of Christopher Hitchens, a controversial British writer who happens to have fourth degree esophageal cancer. In his last book, which served as his autobiography, he gave a tip to writers: he said, “Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you unless she really was a boy at the time, in which case I think you have thrown away a much better intro.”

So, how do we rewrite that sentence? We don’t want the phrase “as a boy” to be qualified by the term “grandmother.” Let’s try this – “When I was a boy, my grandmother used to read to me.” That works. The phrase “when I was a boy” is followed immediately by “my,” the proper pronoun for boy instead of grandmother.

Thanks for this, Chris. And I’ve appreciated all your other messages, political and otherwise, over the years. I hope you have several more books in you.


  1. As an editor, fixing misplaced modifiers in others' works is tough for me because I worry they'll feel I'm changing their voice, but as this post shows, it's simply necessary. :)

  2. Hi Lauren,

    Yes, I agree. I'm also an editor, so I face the same dilemma. It's critical not to change the voice, tone, or message of the writer, but we have to do the dirty work when the sentence is misleading (and laughable, in this case).

    Take care. Sigrid


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