Squinting Modifier

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Squinting Modifier?

A squinting modifier is a type of misplaced modifier. A squinting modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous because it is unclear whether it modifies text before it or after it.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Squinting Modifiers
  • A Squinting Modifier is a Type of Misplaced Modifier
  • A Squinting Modifier is a Type of Misplaced Modifier
  • Printable Test
squinting modifier example

Examples of Squinting Modifiers

Here are some examples of squinting modifiers (shaded):
  • Cycling up hills quickly strengthens your quadriceps.
  • (In this example, the adverb quickly is a squinting modifier. It is unclear whether quickly pertains to Cycling up hills or strengthens.)
  • Taking a moment to think clearly improves your chances.
  • (In this example, the adverb clearly is a squinting modifier. It is unclear whether it modifies to think or improves.)
  • Saving lives often induces pride.
  • (We do not know whether often applies to saving lives or induces pride.)
  • She told her nephew eventually the dog would have to go back to its owner.
  • (Does eventually apply to told or would have to go back?)
  • Public speakers who pause briefly refocus their audience.
  • (Does briefly apply to pause or refocus?)

A Squinting Modifier is a Type of Misplaced Modifier

A squinting modifier can feasibly "look" left or right. A normal misplaced modifier (i.e., one that isn't squinting) is also ambiguous, but doesn't sit between the two things it could feasibly be modifying. Here is an example from the film Hot Fuzz:

"He was a hero at his last police station. He once shot a robber with a Kalashnikov."
     "Great, where did he get that?"
"No, the robber had the Kalashnikov."

In this example, the adverbial phrase with a Kalashnikov (a type of assault rifle) is a misplaced modifier. It isn't squinting because there is nothing to its right. However, it is unclear whether it pertains to shot or a robber. Read more about misplaced modifiers. A squinting modifier makes a written sentence ambiguous. Sentences with squinting modifiers are normally not ambiguous when spoken (due to voice intonation). However, you must avoid squinting modifiers when writing.

Fixing a Squinting Modifier

You can eliminate the ambiguity by changing the position of the squinting modifier or by restructuring your sentence.
  • Cycling up hills strengthens your quadriceps quickly.
  • Taking a moment to think clearly about the issue improves your chances.

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