Mis-mods and Mad-verbs*

Believing that satisfying her career goals required deeper education, the glorious student addressed her appetite for success by achieving a master’s degree in library science.**

One stumbling block I encounter often as an editor has to do with adjectives and verbs that don’t align with their subjects and direct objects. The problem with the sentence above isn’t one of grammar or argument; it’s one of flow. Several words just don’t seem to fit.

Let’s start with the adjectives. What exactly is a deeper education? What are the characteristics of a glorious student? These are modifiers that miss. A sentence that describes an ambitious student with hopes of a specialized education just sits better with the reader.

Verbs can also fall into this trap. Is an appetite something to be addressed? Are goals satisfied? Is a degree achieved? These little gaps between verbs and their direct objects can be just maddening enough to doom your message. Doesn’t the story of someone pursuing her goals, satisfying her appetite for success, and earning a degree sound…glorious?

Word choices that give your reader the wrong kind of pause are a set-up for miscommunication. We want our messages to inspire and provoke, but when readers start asking themselves random and irrelevant questions, it may mean that we’ve chosen words that are less provocative and just plain distracting.

* I searched language books and style guides and didn’t find names for the language missteps  described  above.  Consider these terms coined!
** I prefer not to use client examples (sanitized, anonymized, or otherwise) when making a point, so the sentence above is completely made up (and an extreme example of the offenses discussed here).

3 thoughts on “Mis-mods and Mad-verbs*

  1. I never quite know what to call these kinds of errors either, but I see them all the time…. Mind if I steal your names for them?

  2. Garner probably has a term for these but I like mis-mods and mad-verbs. (Might modify mine to mad-ob-verbs.) Permission to appropriate for my own editorial marginalia?

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