Opinions Tue, 29 Aug 2017

Language agenda in Mecca: Squinting modifier, a source of ambiguity


Modifiers are elements of enhancing the meaning and beauty of constructions. However, when modifiers are not properly handled, they constitute fertile grounds for ambiguity and miscommunication. Certainly, a squinting modifier is one of the sources of ambiguity. What is then a squinting modifier? How is it avoided? Answers to these questions constitute the learning outcomes of this discourse.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this discourse, colleague learners should be able to maximize their understanding of:

? Squinting Modifier ? Avoidance of Squinting Modifier Squinting Modifier This is an ambiguously placed modifier that can modify a word before it or a word after it. Often, squinting modifiers are adverbs of various kinds: from that of manner to that of time. The ambiguity in squinting modifier arises from the inability of the reader or listener to figure out the actual word modified. This way, the meaning is disturbed, and the flow of communication hampered. Below are illustrative sentences containing squinting modifiers:

? Wunintira told us (that) AFTER HAJJ he would travel to Dagbon State.

? Chalpang who visited us HAPPILY has returned home.


In the first sentence the adverb of time "AFTER HAJJ" is a squinting modifier. By its position, it can modify the verb "told" which is before it and the verb "travel" which is after it. To enhance understanding, we may consider the following questions: Did Wunintira tell us AFTER HAJJ or he would embark on the travel AFTER HAJJ? In all fairness, the answer could be both, a situation which creates ambiguity.

The same explanation is applicable to the second sentence. Here the adverb of manner "HAPPILY" is the squinting modifier. Does it modify the verb "visited" which is before it or the verb "returned" which is after it? In other words, is it that Chalpang visited us HAPPILY or he returned home HAPPILY?

Avoidance of Squinting Modifier There are many ways of avoiding squinting modifiers. Among these ways is repositioning the modifier to modify one word or both words from the same direction. Examples:

? AFTER HAJJ, Wunintira said he would travel to Dagbon State. (Here the modifier modifies the whole sentence - including the two verbs - from the same direction).

? According to Wunintira, he would travel to Dagbon State AFTER HAJJ. (Here the modifier modifies one verb only: "travel").

? Chalpang has visited us and returned home HAPPILY. (Here the modifier modifies both verbs from the same direction).

? Happily, Chalpang visited us and returned home. (The modifier modifies the whole sentence including the two verbs from the same direction).


To sum up, it is instructive to state that squinting modifiers appear insignificant to many speakers and writers. But they are serious literary potholes that may cause accidents of comprehension and spoil the beauty of communication. Dear reader, just be mindful of squinting modifiers and avoid them in the interest of communicative clarity.


This discourse is dedicated to ALHAJI M. D. Jalal of Islamice Bank for the warm reception he has extended to a number of Ghanian pilgrims in Mecca. May Allah bless him. Ameen.

Allah is the Best Grammarian.

Columnist: Dr. Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo