Where to Place Descriptive Phrases
English doesn’t have as many word forms for you to memorize as many other modern languages have. But English speakers have to be careful about word order. Most people do all right with nouns and verbs, but descriptions are another matter. Placing a description in the wrong spot can completely wreck your sentence.
Can you spot what’s wrong with this sentence?
Lulu put a ring in her pierced nose that she had bought last week.
The describing words that she had bought last week follow the word nose. The way the sentence is now, that she had bought last week describes nose. The Internet sells plenty of unusual items, but not noses (yet), though a Web address for plastic surgeons offering discount nose jobs is out there somewhere.
Here’s the correction:
In her pierced nose Lulu put a ring that she had bought last week.
Now that she had bought last week follows ring, which Lulu really did buy last week.
If you encounter a misplaced description in your writing (or on a test), be sure that your revision doesn’t create another error. Here’s an example of a faulty revision, still working from the sentence about Lulu’s nose:
Lulu put a ring that she had bought last week in her pierced nose.
In this version Lulu’s shopping took place inside her nose, which is rather large, but not spacious enough for a jewelry store. Why? Because in her pierced nose tells you where something happened. The sentence has two verbs, put and had bought. The description describes the nearest action, which, in the faulty revision, is had bought. In the true correction, in her pierced nose is at the beginning of the sentence, closer to put than to had bought.
The description that she bought last week is an adjective clause. It describes the noun ring.
Here’s another description that wandered too far from home:
Lulu also bought a genuine, 1950-model, fluorescent pink hula-hoop with a credit card.
According to news reports, toddlers and dogs have received credit card applications, but plastic toys haven’t been offered credit. Yet the sentence says that the hula-hoop comes with a credit card. How to fix it? Move the description:
With a credit card Lulu also bought a genuine, 1950-model, fluorescent pink hula-hoop.
Granted, most people can figure out the meaning of the faulty sentence, even when the description is in the wrong place. Logic is a powerful force. But chances are your reader or listener will pause a moment to unravel what you’ve said. The next couple of sentences may be a washout because your audience is distracted.
The rule concerning description placement is simple: Place the description as close as possible to the word that it describes.
Maybe because professors are tired of moving descriptions around in student papers, college entrance tests (the SAT or ACT) question you thoroughly on this topic.
Can you determine which sentence is correct?
A. Roger put the paper into his pocket with atomic secrets written on it.
B. Roger put the paper with atomic secrets written on it into his pocket.
Answer: Sentence B is correct because the paper has atomic secrets written on it, not the pocket.