Blog Post

Being specific with modifiers

I’m often troubled by vague modifiers (things that describe something else within the sentence).

Here’s an example, a caption in today’s Weekend Australian:

Geraldine Hakewill stars in Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from the Phyrne Fisher series set in 1964

The problem here is that a naïve reader can’t understand whether the original Phyrne Fisher series was set in 1964 or whether Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries is set in 1964. The sentence doesn’t tell us, and the word ‘modern’ adds to the confusion.

The caption doesn’t include ‘which is’ or ‘that is’ (as in ‘a spin-off from the Phyrne Fisher series that is set in 1964’). In theory, ‘that is’ should help readers to understand that ‘1964’ is describing the spin-off. But many writers prefer to leave out ‘that is’ in the interests of brevity, and readers no longer expect it. This adds to the confusion created by the caption.

It’s interesting to think about how to write a clearer caption, without increasing the word count or adding complexity to the structure.

I’d quite like to add a comma, which might help readers to realise that ‘set in 1964’ refers back to the modern series.

Geraldine Hakewill stars in Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from the Phyrne Fisher series, set in 1964

Another option might be:

Geraldine Hakewill stars in Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964, which is a spin-off from the Phyrne Fisher series

Or:

Geraldine Hakewill stars in the Phyrne Fisher spin-off Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964

Or:

Geraldine Hakewill stars in the 1964-set Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from the Phyrne Fisher series

Tricky.

In case you’re wondering … it’s the ‘modern’ series that’s set in 1964, and this is clear from the article.

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