How many modifiers is too many?
Today’s episode concerns a what-you-may-have-been-wondering-about topic. That sure was a mouthful, and it illustrates the problem of stacked modifiers, which occurs when you string together too many words to describe a noun at the end of the mouthful.
Bill Walsh, author of Lapsing into a Comma, calls this problem “adjective pileup” (1), and Microsoft Word’s grammar checker will sometimes put a squiggle under a bunch of words and complain, “Too Many Nouns.” Let’s look at these related problems and then resolve not to create such a traffic jam in our sentences.
Modifiers describe, or modify, other words. Adjectives modify nouns or pronouns, for example, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. You don’t run into any problems in single adjective-noun combinations such as “illustrated book.” And you can even use one noun to modify another (2). It sounds weird, but we do it all the time. In the phrase “job description,” for example, the noun “job” modifies “description.”
Double- or Triple-Word Modifiers
It’s also perfectly acceptable to describe a noun with two or three modifiers. In such cases, you are encouraged to use hyphens to link together words that describe a noun—if the modifiers appear before the noun. For example, if you want to describe someone’s age, as in “the forty-year-old man,” you need hyphens.
When you join words to describe a noun, you’re creating what’s called a phrasal adjective (3). You can hardly go through the day without using such phrasal-adjective combinations as “credit-card statement,” “over-the-counter medicine,” and “long-distance phone call.”
Hyphens clearly mark all the modifiers as going together to describe the one noun, and they prevent a misreading. Take this ambiguous sentence, which currently contains no hyphen: “The man eating lion was taken away.” Who got taken away, the man or the lion? Hmm. We don’t know. However, if we are talking about the lion, we need a hyphen between the words “man” and “eating”: “The man-eating lion was taken away.” The hyphen makes the sentence much clearer. Without the hyphen, the sentence could be interpreted to mean that a man having lion meat for dinner was taken away, at least in places where men eat lions.
If, on the other hand, the modifiers appear after the noun, you get to ditch the hyphens: “The man is forty years old.” No hyphens there. You can also get rid of the hyphens if one of the two words describing the noun is an “-ly” adverb. So if your sentence is “The spiritually inclined woman went to church,” you don’t hyphenate "spiritually inclined."
Modify in Moderation
The modifiers we’ve mentioned so far, such as “illustrated” and “man-eating,” won’t confuse readers, but you will befuddle them if you fall prey to the problem of stacked modifiers. How many modifiers are too many? Well, if you find yourself adding six hyphens to create a monster modifier before a noun, that might be a clue.
Think back to that confusing modifier you heard at the beginning of this podcast: “a what-you-might-have-been-wondering-about topic.” No amount of hyphens can clear up a traffic jam like that. Although that was a bit of exaggeration, stacking your modifiers is a real problem, and perhaps you suffer from it.
Some writers try to save space by joining up too many words before a noun. Cutting words is a good idea most of the time, but not if you sacrifice clarity in the process (4). Stacked modifiers often complicate your sentences needlessly. About.com warns that stacked modifiers tend to crop up in technical writing and newspaper articles, and the Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Handwriting (5) presents us with various unreadable sentences that suffer from modifier mayhem.
Take this Mayfield Handbook example, which contains no hyphens: “The system uses a high peak power single frequency low divergent light beam produced by pulsed lasers” (6). Did you catch all that? Me neither. This sentence uses eight words to modify “beam.” Yikes!
Do not imitate that writer, no matter how much space you think you’re saving. Instead, follow Mayfield’s advice: “Add a few words (especially prepositions and conjunctions) to make the relationships between nouns clear to the reader.” Mayfield rewrites the pulsed-lasers sentence like this: “The system uses pulsed lasers that operate under high peak power to produce a single-frequency light beam with low divergence.” That sentence is still over my head, but at least technically inclined readers now have a chance at understanding it.
As a general rule, you may want to consider three modifiers before a noun or verb as the maximum limit. “The three-foot-high fence” is no big deal, but “the three-foot-high barbed-wire-covered fence” is a bit much.
If you’re faced with having to cram many facts into a small space, consider breaking the sentence into two shorter sentences. You might also decide to get rid of one or more of your modifiers; perhaps you don’t have to list every possible adjective associated with the noun. And don’t forget the hyphens, which will make your sentences more readable.
Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of The Grammar Devotional.
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1. Walsh, Bill. 2000. Lapsing into a Comma, pp. 97-8. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
2. Garner, B. 2009. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, p. 380. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Garner, B. 2009. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, pp. 625-8. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. Nordquist, Richard. About.com Guide. Stacking. http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/stackingterm.htm.
5. Stacked Modifiers and Nouns. Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Handwriting. http://www.mhhe.com/mayfieldpub/tsw/stacked.htm.
6. Stacked Modifiers and Nouns. Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Handwriting. http://www.mhhe.com/mayfieldpub/tsw/stacked.htm.