A Sentence Out of Order

A rule in English is to put modifiers as close to what they modify as you can. Adjectives generally go directly before the noun they modify, a blue car, for example. (Except for post-positives such as “malice aforethought.”)

Adjectival phrases can go afterwards, but what do you do when you have more than one of those phrases? You put the phrase as close as you can to the thing it modifies. Here’s a guy who didn’t:

Decades ago, psychologist Benjamin Libet monitored subjects’ neural activity while they chose to hit a button, and he discovered a burst of activity preceding the conscious decision to push the button by a split second.


What does that split second refer to? It refers to the burst of activity, not pushing the button! He didn’t need so many big words, either. How about this:

… he discovered a burst of activity a split second before the decision to push the button.

Well, I think the sentence is easier to follow now.

This sort of thing is part of good writing. No clear-cut rule, just good judgement.

  • When you write, think how you might be misunderstood, and don’t do that.
  • Try not to cause bumps for your reader.