The Most Common Misplaced Modifier

Girl only wearing white dress

“Girl running on grass with no shoes, only wearing a white dress.”

What is a misplaced modifier? Simply put – it’s a word in your sentence that modifies, or describes, the wrong word.

As I edit or proofread articles, the modifier I see misplaced most often is only.

Two examples here:

“The painting can only be appreciated by looking at its intricate details.”

“I only bought two dresses.”

See anything wrong there? They sound fine when you say them out loud, right?

But if you read them closely, you’ll see that what the writer wants to say in the first example is, “Only when you look at the intricate details can you appreciate the painting.”

What he’s actually written is that you can only appreciate the painting! You can’t copy it, you can’t criticize it. You can only appreciate it!

Same thing in the second example. You only bought the dresses? You didn’t look at them? You didn’t try them on?

Of course, the friend you’re telling this will understand what you mean. It might seem awkward – or even pretentious – to say “I bought only two dresses.”

But if you’re writing, you don’t want to leave any room for misinterpretation.

My suggestion? After you’ve finished writing your piece, do a word search for only to make sure you haven’t misplaced it. While you’re at it, look for other often-misplaced modifiers, like always and almost.

And with that – and other tweaks – you’re almost on your way to an almost perfect article.

P.S. Exercise: The caption below the photograph is the description attached to the photo. How would you fix it?

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How to Cut Your Article Down to Size

ScissorsOne of my favorite copyediting assignments is the e-mail that begins, “This is way too long, but….”

I get the same kind of satisfaction from paring down articles that others get from cleaning a cluttered closet or deleting half the e-mails in their inbox. The difference is, I also get to watch a concise message rise out of wordiness. I get to help the writer say precisely what he or she wants to say.

If you’d like to feel that same satisfaction – while retaining control of your article – here are some ways to cut your article down to size.

Cut Out Meaningless Words

Meaningless words add nothing to the content: “I always believe” becomes “I believe.” “I just never realized” becomes “I never realized.” “She commented about how she feels…” becomes “She feels….”

Other words to watch out for: very, really, absolutely, truly, actually, personally, exactly, even.

Delete Irrelevant Passages

If a sentence – or a paragraph – is not on topic, cut it out. If it hurts to let it go, cut and paste the passage onto a blank page. After you read your final, edited version, you’ll find you don’t miss it. If it’s that good, incorporate it into a new article.

Tighten the Sentences

If possible, turn “there are” passive sentences into active sentences. “There are many people who like purple” becomes “Many people like purple.” Most passive sentences are longer than their active versions.

Combine repetitive sentences. Quote from an interview:

“When it comes to desserts, Karen says the best things to serve are bite sized because everyone likes individual bite sized pieces. Guests are embarrassed to take large pieces and they want to taste everything you have to offer, so the best way to accomplish that is to serve small bite sized pieces.”


“Karen advises serving bite-sized pieces for dessert, because guests want to taste everything you have to offer without embarrassing themselves.”

Savings? 33 words.

If Necessary, Do It Again

Still too long? Read the article out loud. Listen for repetitive words and ideas, unnecessary words you might have missed the first time. Determine what you can cut out while still keeping your message. Be ruthless.

A couple days after I wrote this article, I re-read it and – following my own advice – cut 80 words. I suspect you didn’t notice.

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Get Rid of Information Clutter Once and for All

Paper ClutterWasn’t computer technology supposed to get rid of all this paper clutter?

In my paper clutter world are magazines, training manuals, binders full of writer’s magazine clips, saved recipes, greeting cards, and financial and medical records, just to name a few.

Add to that the electronic clutter – folders of “read-later” e-mails, blog drafts, unfiled e-mails dating back to 2011 (one with advice on information overload!), writing ideas, and webinar PDFs.

It’s enough to make me want to pack it all in a box and toss it without looking – or, in the case of e-mail, selecting “All” and clicking on “Delete.” The trouble is, in all that stuff are things I need to take care of.

Here are some of the reasons we tend to hang on to information clutter. If you identify with  them, maybe the following suggestions will help you leave the clutter beast behind.

1. Not knowing where to start. Start with the pile that bugs you the most or the one that most often interferes with your productivity.

Or start with the smallest pile. Getting rid of it will give you the satisfaction and encouragement to start on a bigger one. If you’re tackling unread e-mails, deal with a month’s worth of them. Tomorrow, deal with another month.

2. Indecision. Ask yourself: What are the legal consequences if I throw it out? Has it served its purpose? When I want this information, am I likely to look in my files for it, or will I search the Internet? Now toss or delete it or file it where you’d look for it.

If you’re in doubt, put it in a box or folder and mark it with a date. If you haven’t used it in a year, trash the box or folder without opening it.

3. Being overwhelmed. Set a timer for 30 minutes, then quit. You’ll be amazed at the progress you make when you know you have a limited amount of time.

4. More information coming in than going out. Take 5 minutes and use the criteria in No. 2 before it piles on your desk or inbox. Don’t subscribe to magazines or blogs you don’t have time to read.

5. Sentimentality. Save messages from special people in a folder called “My Sentimental Journey.” Resist the temptation to re-read them all now.

6. Being a compulsive “finisher.” If you can’t throw out even an old newspaper unless you’ve read it cover to cover, pretend you’ve never subscribed to it. Or pretend you’re on vacation. You miss – and don’t miss – all kinds of news when you’re away from home. Then close your eyes and toss – no regrets.

For me, information clutter is a source of stress – an obstacle to success, a drain on energy and creativity. How does it affect you? Care to share some of your tips for clearing clutter?

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Two Minutes to Fitness and Fresh Ideas

Two Minutes

If you work at a computer all day, you know you probably sit too much – all the health experts tell you so. But how do you get your work done without sitting all day?

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, New York Times Phys Ed columnist Gretchen Reynolds, speaking of her book The First 20 Minutes, suggests simply this: “Stand up for two minutes for every 20 minutes you sit.” That’s a mere six minutes an hour.

Since I work from home, I began to think of all the things I could get done around the house in 2 (or 5) minutes, with this criterion – it must be done without sitting down. (If you make the 5-minute choice, maybe you should wait 30 or 40 minutes before taking a break.)

Here are some activities I thought of:

  1. Make your bed.
  2. Walk up and down the stairs, if available.
  3. Call the do-not-call registry (888-382-1222) to prevent unwanted phone calls.
  4. Go outdoors and breathe some fresh air.
  5. Stand up and do a nice cat-stretch, from your head to your toes.
  6. Make a cup of tea.
  7. Empty the dishwasher.
  8. Spend two minutes clearing the dining room table or other “hot spot.”
  9. Sweep the bathroom floor.
  10. Scour the kitchen sink.
  11. Wipe out the microwave.
  12. Slowly massage lotion into your hands; close your eyes and feel the comfort.
  13. Pet your dog (or the cat, who’s probably hovering around your printer, anyway).
  14. Give a full two or five minutes of undistracted attention to your child.
  15. Start a note to encourage a friend. (Reynolds recommends buying a music stand so you can stand up doing some tasks.)
  16. Finish the note of encouragement.
  17. Pray.
  18. Get the meat out of the freezer for supper.
  19. Start a grocery list.
  20. Begin clearing the pile of papers from your desk – standing up, of course.
  21. Shred the latest credit card offers.
  22. Empty the trash.
  23. Pick a flower.
  24. Water your houseplants.
  25. Grab your camera and take a photo of something – inside or outside.
  26. Go outside and walk around the perimeter of your house.
  27. Smell a rose.
  28. Put some books away.
  29. Fold the towels.
  30. Put away the towels.

Besides the health benefit of preventing (more) middle-age spread, you may discover a side benefit: Stepping away will give you a fresh perspective on the project you are working on –  it lets your subconscious do its thing. Taking longer than two minutes won’t be a problem – you’ll be anxious to put your new perspective down on paper.

It may also make you work faster, knowing you have only a few minutes left to get your latest thoughts on the screen before the 20 minutes is up.

What other productive – or not – two-minute activities can you think of?

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How to Know if You’re a Pro

She was qualified. Her portfolio exhibited the kind of skill and experience the consultant was looking for, but she took three days to answer the e-mail, and when she did, it didn’t seem she had even read it. The initial phone conversation was one-sided, with the consultant listening to a long list of all the writer’s accomplishments and why she should be given the assignment.

The other candidate’s resume wasn’t as impressive nor as extensive, but she repliedProfessionalto the e-mail inquiry before the end of the day, and when she did, she addressed all the questions. When the client talked with her on the phone, he knew he had her full attention. She asked intelligent questions and listened for his answers without interruption.

The “less-qualified” candidate won the assignment. Why? Because she was professional; she cared.

If your demeanor – whether online or in person – is unprofessional, you will give the impression that you don’t care.

On the other hand, if you’re a pro – whether you’re a writer, a waitress, or a wedding consultant – you’ll be perceived as conscientious, enthusiastic about the services you provide and your client’s or customer’s needs.

Following are a few questions you might ask yourself to check your professionalism – not just to make a good first impression and win a client, but to ensure a long, healthy working relationship.

1. Are you reliable?

Being reliable means that others can count on you to follow through on your commitments. They never have to wonder whether or not the job will be done to their specifications and on time. They know they won’t need to remind you of what you promised.

2. Do you admit your mistakes?

Occasionally, you may drop the ball. You may become distracted with another project, or you’re not as organized as you should be. This is the time to be pro-active. Call or e-mail if you’re going to be late with the assignment – before the client calls you.

Don’t make excuses. Barring emergency hospitalization, excuses tend to sound lame. No matter how legitimate they may be, they’ll come across as a lack of planning or foresight or even indifference. Take responsibility, do what you can do to make things right, and prevent it from happening again.

3. Are you discreet?

Your clients must be confident that you will discuss their businesses, personalities, and pay structures with no one.

4. Are you an expert in your field?

You can not know everything, but you can know where to find the answer. Make sure you’ve received the best training possible, always looking to extend your skills and knowledge. Your level of enthusiasm will go a long way in demonstrating that you love what you do.

5. Can you be trusted?

A client must never doubt your veracity. Having integrity means you neither participate in nor encourage unethical practices.

6. What image do you portray?

Know the territory. When you meet with a client or potential client in person, dress as expected for your profession. If your communication is online or on the phone, convey a friendly tone while respecting that this is a business relationship. Being too chummy may repel, rather than attract, clients.

7. Do you maintain professional relationships?

It’s good to like the people you work with, to know and care about their families, about their personal wellbeing. But when you’re working or discussing a project together, stick to the job at hand. Respect your client’s schedule.

8. Do you organize your time well?

If you’re a true pro, you keep ahead of work, not behind. You deliver earlier than expected. You invoice on time. If you can’t keep up with your administrative duties, find someone to help you.

Being a professional is largely a matter of respect – for yourself, for your work, and most of all – for your clients and their professional goals.

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How to Choose an Administrative Consultant

Needs Administrative ConsultantSo at last you’ve decided to delegate your administrative work. You’ve decided to engage the services of someone who will work with you to accomplish your goals – someone who will take care of the administrative tasks while you do what you do best – grow your business.

You may know that some call themselves virtual assistants, others administrative assistants or administrative consultants.

But how do you decide which one to call?

How can you trust that what you see on a website portrays the true qualities of the services she provides?

The following are indications that she views herself as a professional who seeks excellence in her own business and will do the same for you. (Because most Administrative Consultants are women, I’m choosing to use the feminine pronoun.)

You Know She’s the One If She…

  1. Classifies herself as an independent contractor for the Internal Revenue Service. In other words, she controls how and when she accomplishes the work as she meets the deadlines you both agree on.
  2. Sees herself not as an employee, but as a professional offering her services for your benefit, much as an attorney or medical practitioner would.
  3. Directs the financial aspects of her business, including training, equipment, taxes, and health insurance.
  4. Is an experienced professional who seeks collaborative, ongoing business relationships, not one-time tasks or projects. The longer you work together, the more efficiently you both accomplish your mutual goals.
  5. Seems anxious for you to talk with her present or past clients for honest evaluations of her service.
  6. Asks pertinent questions about your business, evaluating whether or not the relationship is a good business fit.
  7. Requires only the training required to learn about your specific business practices, clientele, and schedule.

You Know She’s the One to Keep If She:

  1. Gives you her full attention when you’re working together – even though you realize she also supports other clients.
  2. Doesn’t promise you an earlier deadline or more than she can realistically deliver.
  3. Keeps up with current trends in best office practices.
  4. Values your time and sets clear, reasonable boundaries about your use of her time.
  5. Respects the confidentiality that is essential to your success and competitive edge.
  6. Knows her success depends on your success.
  7. Knows how to manage her time in order to accommodate multiple clients’ projects, personalities, and deadlines.


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Which is which. That is that!

clothing to children
Which of the following is better?

1. Clothes Peg is a program which donates clothing to children.


    2. Clothes Peg is a program that donates clothing to children.

    What about these two sentences?

    1. Funds will go to the Mid-Town Clinic that focuses on helping the working uninsured receive medical treatment.


    2. Funds will go to the Mid-Town Clinic, which focuses on helping the working uninsured receive medical treatment.

    Does it make any difference?

    According to The Chicago Manual of Style, if you live in Great Britain, it doesn’t make any difference. But in “polished American prose” – I would call it effective writing – we make a distinction.

    Officially, the word that is a relative pronoun and is used restrictively. It limits the meaning of the preceding noun and is necessary to the understanding of the sentence.

    The word which is a relative pronoun, used non-restrictively. It defines or adds information to the preceding noun.

    Try This!

    If you’re not sure, insert a comma after the noun the phrase follows. If the phrase makes sense with a comma, use which. If it doesn’t, use that.

    Which one is better?

    In the first example, adding a comma would give you this: “Clothes Peg is a program, which donates clothing to children.”  It sounds like you’re unnecessarily defining “program,” doesn’t it? So in that case, the second choice is better: “Clothes Peg is a program that donates clothing to children.”

    Try it with the second example: “Funds will go to the Mid-Town Clinic, which focuses on helping.” If you used that, it would indicate that out of several Mid-Town Clinics,  this is the one that focuses on helping the working uninsured.

    Another Trick of the Trade

    Remove the phrase. If the sentence informs you without it, which is your word.

    In our examples, the phrases would read:

    “Clothes Peg is a program.” [Well, that tells me a lot!]

    Funds will go to the Good Samaritan Clinic. [That’s great! How should I make out my check?]

    Do We Have One Car or Two?

    A simple switch from that to which lets you know.

    1. “ Our car that is in the garage shows 85,000 miles on the odometer.”
    2. “Our car, which is in the garage, shows 85,000 miles on the odometer.”

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    How to Keep Your Clients Coming Back


    The aspects of good customer service never change. Building relationships, education, communication, and integrity are still key elements in keeping your clients coming back.

    The tips listed below appeared in a newsletter titled The Keyboard Connection, which I published back in April, 1993, when I dubbed myself “Secretary at Your Service.” They were adapted from a list I found in a January 1993 publication of Nation’s Business.

    The list may be old, but they are still goals for which we should all strive as we maintain present business relationships and develop new ones. I’ve elucidated a bit on the short article, previously entitled “Keys to Good Service.”

    1. Educate your clients about your product or service. It sets you up as a go-to expert in your field. That is one intention of this blog: to share with you a little insight into what I’ve discovered are best business practices as well as technicalities of the crafts of office management and writing I have learned over the years.
    2. Give your clients what they want, not what you want them to want. You’ll discover what they want only if you know how to ask questions and – more important – listen for the answers.
    3. Stand by your guarantees, no matter what. That’s why we should never promise more than we can deliver. It’s better to over-deliver than to over-promise.
    4. Help customers make informed decisions. The retailers I’m most likely to use again are the ones who may not carry what I need but will tell me where I can find it. They are the ones who want me to know everything about the product before I buy, even if it means it may postpone the sale. Why will I go back? Because I perceive they’re looking out for me, not their short-term profit.
    5. Keep in touch with your clients. A short note or phone call will let them know they’re important to you. I almost updated “note” to e-mail, then changed my mind. A short handwritten note is less likely to be put aside than an e-mail message. It’s certainly worth a lot more than the 10 minutes and 44 cents it will take to send it.
    6. Hold a customer appreciation day. I’m not sure how this one would apply to a long-distance business relationship. Any suggestions?
    7. Follow up purchases with a call to make sure your customer is satisfied. This shows you not only care about the product or service you deliver but about your relationship with the client. Conversely, it may also be a good practice to let your supplier know you’re pleased with a purchase – providing another boost to your relationship.
    8. Remember that “people do business with their friends.” This is what Facebook and Twitter are all about – building relationships and thereby building trust. Before doing business with anyone – particularly online – we all want to feel like we know something more about them than just what they’re trying to sell.

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