#amwriting: squinting modifiers

Squinting ModifiersThis week we are going to look at two structural errors that introduce ambiguity into our narrative.

First up is the hilariously named squinting modifier.  Who thinks up these things? The first time I came across that expression, I thought it was a joke. However, in the world of writing, a “squinting modifier” is simply a type of misplaced modifier. According to Neal at Literal Minded, the term can be traced back to George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776.

It is a common error that can be difficult for the author to spot in their work because the author’s mind sees what was intended, not how it appears to an unbiased eye.

This structural error introduces ambiguity:  it seems to qualify the words both before and after it.

  • Students who skip classes rarely are reprimanded.

Does this mean students who rarely skip classes are reprimanded? Or, perhaps those students are rarely reprimanded.

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, offers this example:

  • Children who laugh rarely are shy.

Is the author talking about children laughing rarely, or rarely being shy?

ambiguityMisplaced modifiers (frequently adverbs) make our work unclear, or “ambiguous.” The best way to avoid that ambiguity is to move the modifier so that your meaning is clear, or completely reword the sentence.

  • Children who laugh are rarely shy.
  • Students who skip class are rarely reprimanded.

When you introduce a large number of modifiers into your work you run the risk of

  • Introducing passivity to your narrative
  • Unintentionally introducing ambiguity

If you haven’t figured it out by now, there is an easy way to identify adverbs. Most, but not all, end in the letters “ly.” Knowing this makes it fairly easy to identify adverbs in sentences.

As I said, not all adverbs end in “ly.” Some frequency adverbs, do not follow this rule.

  • always
  • never
  • often
  • sometimes
  • seldom

Still, knowing that ‘ly’ at the end of a word indicates an adverb will help you avoid overusing them.

You may wonder why we want to limit the modifiers in our prose—and it’s a good question. How we use modifiers is part of the voice of our work.

If we are writing genre fiction (i.e. romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy) your prospective readers will not endure fluffed up prose written for the beauty of the words. They want lean prose, with an active voice, and to achieve that active phrasing, we cut back on the “ly” modifiers. Instead of telling you how the scene looks, an active voice shows you what the protagonist sees.

Telling: The night was hot and damp. Darren entered the alley, which was awfully dark and smelly. “Rafe?” he asked quietly.

“Over here,” said Rafe. He was all raggedy and dirty.

Showing: Darren entered the alley, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. The odors of overripe privies and decomposing garbage lingered in the humid air, along with the reek of despair. “Rafe?” he whispered.

A pile of rags stirred and a familiar voice said, “Over here.”

When we use active phrasing, we are better able to convey atmosphere.

Adverbs ending in “ly” are often called “adverbs of manner.” Despite the rants of some self-proclaimed gurus in certain writing forums, these words have a place in active prose, and anyone who says they don’t is not fully informed.

This is where it becomes a matter of style and the author’s voice. We choose our words deliberately to convey the story the way we see it, precisely placing modifiers to achieve a certain effect.

Perhaps you are trying to convey a character’s lack of conviction regarding his plan of action: Rafe is a down-on-his-luck confidence man, a reformed scam-artist drawn in to do a job only he has the skills for.

“I’m fairly sure this will be safe.” Rafe crossed his fingers for luck. “It’s not that much dynamite.”

Several authors I know well would never use the word “fairly” because its an indecisive word. That indecisiveness is what I want to convey. This is the difference in our “voices.”

The way I see it: Rafe could say “I’m almost sure” but to me, that phrasing feels clunky and obvious–it does show his doubt. But, in  my opinion, what it doesn’t convey is Rafe’s desire to sell his reluctant partner the plan he has little confidence in. He has to convince Darren to go along with it because they have no other option. Rafe is a conman, trying to reform. He has an important reason to not just lie about it, so he wants to be as truthful as he can be and still sell Darren on the plan.

Writing involves words of all kinds and using them properly.

Adverbs are a powerful seasoning to add to your prose–be sparing and make the best use of them. Those you do use should go unnoticed in the narrative.

Your readers will thank you.

List of common adverbs


Filed under Publishing, Self Publishing, writer, writing

5 responses to “#amwriting: squinting modifiers

  1. Ah!!! I see what you were asking me to look for now! My outside eyes were blinded by my inner eyes. So helpful, Connie! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: #amwriting: The Garden Path | Life in the Realm of Fantasy

  3. Thanks again for an excellent lesson. About adverbs. While as you so aptly reveal, they should be avoided as much as possible when describing foreground action or when working in scene. In those stretches of summary that move the story around between scenes, adverbs can be useful, but only if they create frisson rather than merely amplify the action we can figure out anyway (to sleep selfishly, for example).

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Scott–an excellent point. Certain stories allow for more descriptors, freeing an author’s voice. I have the problem of loving words and getting carried away with them. “Paring my prose” is my new mantra.