Editing Your Novel? Spot Any Squinting Modifiers?

Can you spot the squinting modifier in this passage?

Poor Ella. Arms spread across the table she hung over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle like a lollygagging drunkard unable to rally. Probably needed a better bedtime routine now that school started.

Before revealing the answer and discussing ways to remedy the problem, let’s start with the basics.

What’s a squinting modifier?

5 Things You Should Know About Squinting Modifiers:

  1. A squinting modifier (or squinting construction), also called a two-way modifier (or two-way construction), is a word or phrase that either modifies what comes before it, or after it.
  2. Squinting constructions confuse readers because they create ambiguity: sentences that could mean two different things.
  3. Squinting modifiers are often adverbs, such as only.
  4. A squinting modifier can usually be corrected by changing its position in the sentence.
  5. In some instances, squinting modifiers can be corrected with punctuation.
#AmEditing? Squinting modifiers defined. How to fix them. #editingtips #editing #grammar #grammartips Click To Tweet 5 Things You Should Know About Squinting Modifiers. #grammartips #grammar #writing #writers #editing Click To Tweet

How would you edit this squinting modifier?

Shaniqua told her editor on Friday she spotted a squinting modifier.

SOLUTION #1: Shaniqua told her editor she spotted a squinting modifier on Friday.
SOLUTION #2: On Friday, Shaniqua told her editor she spotted a squinting modifier.

Notice, the sentences offered as solutions have completely different meanings.

The sentence in Solution #1 indicates when Shaniqua spotted a squinting modifier. Shaniqua spotted a squinting modifier on Friday.

The sentence in Solution #2 indicates when Shaniqua told her editor she spotted a squinting modifier. Shaniqua told her editor on Friday.

Here’s another squinting modifier grammar challenge.

See if you can spot the squinting modifier in this sentence:

Stating what you wish to convey clearly will lead to better understanding.

Spot the squinting modifier? The answer? It’s the adverb “clearly.”

Let’s see what happens when we move the squinting modifier into different positions in the sentence.

SOLUTION #1: Clearly stating what you wish to convey will lead to better understanding.
SOLUTION #2: Stating what you wish to convey will clearly lead to better understanding.

In the first solution, the focus is on how you should state what you wish to convey: you should state it clearly.

In the second solution, the word “clearly” is used emphatically, a method of speaking forcefully.

Squinting modifiers confuse readers because they muddle the meaning of the sentence. #amediting #grammar Click To Tweet

Let’s return to the passage at the beginning of our squinting modifiers discussion.

Can you spot the squinting modifier?

Poor Ella. Arms spread across the table she hung over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle like a lollygagging drunkard unable to rally. Probably needed a better bedtime routine now that school started.

Here’s the answer: across the table 

Now, if you’ve read through this post, you may be thinking: That’s easy to fix! Simply move the squinting modifier. Right?

Here’s the problem.

The phrase “across the table” doesn’t slide neatly into a different position in the sentence while still capturing what the author wanted to convey.

Poor Ella. Across the table, arms spread, she hung over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle like a lollygagging drunkard unable to rally. Probably needed a better bedtime routine now that school started.

In this example, the author didn’t intend for Ella to appear all the way across the table. The author intended for Ella to be sitting quite close to the point of view character.

Let’s try it a different way.

Poor Ella. Arms spread, she hung across the table over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle like a lollygagging drunkard unable to rally. Probably needed a better bedtime routine now that school started.

In this example, the author didn’t intend for it to sound as if Ella’s entire body hung across the table.

Neither location of the words “across the table” is quite what the author intended.

One way to fix it is to add punctuation. Perhaps a semicolon to create a left-branching sentence.

To create a left-branching sentence, place the words “arms spread across the table” to the left of the semicolon.

Poor Ella. Arms spread across the table; she hung over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle like a lollygagging drunkard unable to rally. Probably needed a better bedtime routine now that school started.

You could create a right-branching sentence, too. Simply move the words “arms spread across the table” to the right of the semicolon.

Poor Ella. She hung over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle like a lollygagging drunkard unable to rally; arms spread across the table. Probably needed a better bedtime routine now that school started.

However, in the above right-branching sentence, the sequence of the images the author is wanting to convey is a bit off. The author wished to convey the image of the arms spread across the table before conveying the image of a lollygagging drunkard to help specify the disposition of the lollygagging drunkard: the lollygagging drunkard wasn’t rocking back and forth or slapping her belly while she laughed, she was hung over a half-eaten chocolate chip waffle with her arms spread across the table. Sequencing the phrases in a particular order makes the image easier to conjure in the reader’s mind.

How to use punctuation to correct a squinting modifier. #grammartip #editing #amediting Click To Tweet

Before we go, here’s a re-cap.

Squinting modifiers are . . .

– called squinting modifiers, squinting constructions, two-way modifiers, and/or two-way constructions
– a word or phrase that either modifies what comes before it or after it
– confusing to readers because they create ambiguity: sentences that could mean two different things
– often, but not always, adverbs
– usually corrected by changing its position in the sentence
– sometimes corrected with punctuation

And that’s it. Squinting modifiers: what they are, how to spot them, and more important, how to fix them.

On the 85K Writing Challenge 60-Day Edit: Fixing Squinting Modifiers. #amwriting #writingtips #grammartips Click To Tweet

About Julie Valerie

Julie Valerie writes upmarket women’s fiction. Her Scrabble-inspired short story, “LLL,” was published in A Kind of Mad Courage: Short Stories About Mothers, (S)mothers & Others. A voracious reader, Julie has reviewed 200+ books in her genre, recently won the BookSparks 2015 Summer Reading Challenge Grand Prize, and founded the 85K Writing Challenge, providing writers with a supportive, enriching forum to pen 85,000 words in 90 days with twelve months of writer productivity support. When she’s not writing, Julie is pursuing an editing certificate from the University of Chicago Graham School and testing her knowledge of the Chicago Manual of Style. Connect with Julie: julievalerie.com | fb.com/JulieValerieAuthor | @Julie_Valerie

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Julie Valerie

Julie Valerie

85K Writing Challenge: Embracing the writing life by advancing the practice of productive writing from first word to first reader.

One thought on “Editing Your Novel? Spot Any Squinting Modifiers?

  1. Yikes! I did spot one of these in a recent book I read, but laughed it off as an easy trap which any author could fall into. Fixing these (especially where distracting waffles are present) is way harder for me than noticing them. I do love the catchy term, though.

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