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Squinting Modifiers and How to Avoid Them

Posted by Capstone Editing on 17 April 2023

Squinting Modifiers and How to Avoid Them


As an academic writer, you're no doubt familiar with the importance of clear and concise writing. One common issue that can muddy the waters of your writing is the use of squinting modifiers.

If you use Grammarly, we’re betting that you’ve seen the error ‘squinting modifier’ flagged but did not necessarily know how to correct it (which is just one problem with trying to use software instead of a human editor!).

A squinting modifier is a type of misplaced modifier that can confuse your reader by making it unclear which part of the sentence it modifies. In this article, we'll explore what a squinting modifier is, why it's problematic and how to avoid and correct them in your writing.

First, what is a modifier?

A modifier is a word, phrase or clause that provides additional information about another word or group of words in a sentence.

A modifier can either add description or specify the type or extent of the noun or verb it is modifying. Modifiers can be adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases or dependent clauses.

For example, in the sentence ‘The tall man with a beard walked slowly down the street’, ‘tall’ and ‘with a beard’ are adjective phrases modifying ‘man’ and ‘slowly’ is an adverb modifying ‘walked’.

What is a squinting modifier?

A squinting modifier is a modifier that can be interpreted in two different ways, depending on its placement within a sentence. Typically, these modifiers are placed between two parts of a sentence, making it unclear which part they modify. As a result, squinting modifiers can confuse the reader and make your writing less clear.

Here's an example of a sentence with a squinting modifier:

‘Studying for exams every day can help improve grades in the library.’

In this sentence, the modifier ‘every day’ could modify ‘studying for exams’ or ‘improve grades’. As a result, it's unclear whether the writer is suggesting that studying in the library every day can improve grades or that studying for exams every day can improve grades in the library.

Why are squinting modifiers problematic?

Squinting modifiers can be problematic for several reasons. For one, they can confuse the reader, leading to a breakdown in communication. If the reader isn't sure which part of the sentence the modifier is modifying, they may misinterpret the sentence's meaning.

Additionally, squinting modifiers can make your writing less clear and concise, as already noted. When a sentence is ambiguous, understanding its meaning requires more mental effort. This can lead to reader fatigue and make your writing less engaging.

How to avoid squinting modifiers

Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to avoid and correct squinting modifiers in your writing.

1. Rearrange the sentence

One of the easiest ways to avoid squinting modifiers is to rearrange the sentence so that the modifier is placed next to the word or phrase it is modifying. For example:

‘Studying in the library every day can help improve grades for exams.’

In this revised sentence, the modifier ‘every day’ is placed next to ‘studying in the library’, making it clear that it modifies this phrase.

2. Use a different modifier

Another option is to use a different modifier that is unambiguous. For example:

‘Studying for exams every day in the library can help improve grades.’

In this revised sentence, we've replaced the squinting modifier ‘every day’ with the unambiguous modifier ‘in the library’. Now, it's clear that this modifier is modifying ‘studying for exams.’

3. Break the sentence into two

If rearranging or replacing the modifier isn't an option, consider breaking the sentence into two. For example:

‘Studying for exams every day can help improve grades. Doing so in the library provides a quiet and distraction-free environment.’

In this revised version, we've split the sentence into two parts, making it clear that the modifier ‘every day’ modifies ‘studying for exams’. This also clarifies the writer's point by allowing them to expand on the benefits of studying in the library.

Final Thoughts

As an academic writer, it's essential to communicate your ideas clearly and effectively. Squinting modifiers can hinder achieving this goal, but with a little effort, they can be avoided and corrected. Remember to rearrange the sentence, use a different modifier or break the sentence into two when necessary.

Thanks for reading!

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