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Does an Adverb Modify Everything That Follows It?

Adverbs modify things, but in the following sentence is "quickly" modifying "ran and hid" or just "ran"? "The child quickly ran and hid under the porch." It's a question of structural ambiguity.

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
April 5, 2018
Episode #615

An example of a sentence with an ambiguous adverb: She quickly ran and hid.

Recently, Grammar Girl listener Lori Kehoe sent an interesting question. She asked,

“Is it possible for one adverb to modify multiple verbs? For example, "The child quickly ran and hid under the porch." I have a student who labeled ‘quickly’ as modifying both ‘ran’ and ‘hid.’ I am inclined to mark it as correct even though the book says that ‘quickly’ simply modifies "ran." 

Lori, you were right to question the book. The sentence is ambiguous because it’s not entirely clear whether “quickly” modifies both the verbs that follow it.

  • It might. In that case, the child quickly ran and quickly hid.
  • Or it might not. In that case, the child ran quickly and then hid (hid at a normal pace, perhaps looking around carefully to find the perfect spot).

In this case, I’d lean toward the meaning your student sensed because it’s definitely a legitimate possibility: that the child both ran and hid quickly.

The Scope of a Modifier Extends Forward

That’s because in English, the scope of a modifier tends to extend to all the words that follow it.  Let’s take a sentence like "I always pack a lunch and eat at my desk.” The adverb “always” would generally be understood as extending to both verbs: I always pack a lunch—and always eat at my desk.

However, in a sentence like “I randomly grabbed a bagel and stuffed it into my mouth,” it's implied that you were so hungry, you'd grab anything at hand, however random. But we never stuff food in, say, our armpit. So "randomly" is understood intuitively to describe “grabbed,” but not "stuffed."

In either case, if you want to avoid confusion, you can always clarify your sentence. “I always pack a lunch and sometimes eat at my desk,” for example. Or “I randomly grabbed a bagel and deliberately placed it in my mouth.” Most of the time, it’s not a big deal and people will know what you mean, but rewriting can become important if you’re writing something that needs to be precise like instructions or legal documents.

This tendency of modifiers to extend to the words that follow them doesn’t just happen with adverbs. It also happens with adjectives. Here’s an example. 

  • Today at the clinic, we’re treating flea-bitten dogs and cats. 

Are the dogs and cats both flea-bitten? The sentence is ambiguous, but it seems to suggest they are. If that’s not what you mean, you’ll want to rephrase the sentence:

  • Today at the clinic, we’re treating cats and several flea-bitten dogs.

Here’s another example. 

  • She wore a fuzzy jacket and high heels to the dance.

OK, a reader would probably assume that only the jacket was fuzzy, not the high heels too. But to be safe, you could reword the sentence:

  • She wore high heels and a fuzzy jacket to the dance.

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