Writing: Don't misplace the modifiers

In Nuce: Sentence in his head
Cartoon by Kevin H
There are two general rules to remember when writing sentences:
  1. The beginning and the end of a sentence are the places of greatest emphasis.
  2. Modifying words (adjectives and adverbs) should be placed near the words they modify.
However, when trying too hard to follow one rule, you may run into trouble following the other.

Says Minto
As both principles are important it may be worth while to show how they sometimes conflict, and to consider which should give way and how far...
Consider, for instance, this classified from an old British newspaper:
A piano for sale by a lady about to cross the Channel in an oak case with carved legs.
A comic misreference is possible ... and yet the writer of this advertisement constructed it on a sound instinct. The important points are the article for sale and the description of it. The one is put at the beginning and the other at the end; what comes between, the reason for the sale, is of secondary consequence. If this were put in brackets, so as to avoid the absurd suggestion, it would be a perfect sentence for its purpose, so far as the arrangement goes...
Obviously there should not be too long an interval between a word or phrase and its [modifiers]. But the true test to apply is to consider whether there is any real risk of misinterpretation or misleading suggestion in the ordinary currency of reading.
So, if the author is still determined to follow both general rules, the ad must read,
A piano for sale (by a lady about to cross the Channel) in an oak case with carved legs.
However, that construction is still plenty awkward and confusing. How much better to follow the most important rule of all: write for clarity. Keep in mind the rules, but focus on what's important, and write to make sense.
 For sale: a piano in an oak case with carved legs.
Bravo; we've just cut to the chase. Placing "for sale" and "piano" at the beginning of the sentence gives the reader the most important information right away. The qualifying prepositional phrases directly follow the word they modify and remain in a position of emphasis at the end of the sentence. 
Other examples of misplaced modifiers:
  1. Two workmen were digging holes in their blue shirts along the side of the road.
  2. Mr Carlyle has taught us that silence is golden in thirty volumes.
  3. The carriage stopped at the small gate which led by a short gravel walk to the house amidst the nods and smiles of the whole party.
  4. One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.(Groucho Marx via Richard Nordquist at About.com: Grammar & Composition)

Source: Minto.

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