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I have these two sentences:

The family of Johnsons in 1980 are heartbroken. They, like all families around them, appear to have given up.

When I read it, a lot of things are wrong and awkward about this sentence.

My question: Is "of Johnsons" a misplaced modifier?

Also, given that the two sentences have to remain consistently in either third person singular or third person plural and family, in this case, is singular, so which one would make more sense?

  • What makes you think "a lot of things are wrong and awkward"? – Kris May 22 '18 at 9:16
  • The question is based on misconception/ inadequate analysis. – Kris May 22 '18 at 9:17
  • 'The family of Johnsons' sounds unacceptably unidiomatic to my ear; it should be 'The Johnson family'. Though there is 'The house of Usher'. Almost certainly more acceptable would be 'This particular family of Johnsons'. // 'Family' may take notional agreement (though there are some prescriptivists who might dispute this), especially in the UK. As 'It has given up' sounds weird, I'd always select plural agreement here. But this has been covered on ELU many, many times. – Edwin Ashworth May 22 '18 at 9:27
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In answer to your first question: No

Searching for the definition of misplaced modifier on Google leads to the following:

a phrase or clause placed awkwardly in a sentence so that it appears to modify or refer to an unintended word

Similarly, a search on Purdue leads to the following definition:

Misplaced modifiers occur when the subject of the modifier is unclear because the modifier is poorly placed

In this case, the phrase "of Johnsons" clearly modifies the phrase "The family". This leads to the following correct interpretation that the family is composed of Johnsons. So the phrase "of Johnsons" isn't misplaced in the strict definition.

In answer to your second question, the usage is fine. This is because the sentence is about a family of Johnsons. The word "They" refers to that plurality.

Edit: The word "They" actually refers to the fact that a family is composed out of several individuals (hence the plurality). Thanks Kris for pointing that out.

  • Apparently, the OP knows what a "misplaced modifier" is. "Family of Johnsons" is singular, as the OP correctly interpreted. The -s in "Johnsons" is not what causes the plurality, it is the re-imagination of the same "family" as several individuals -- hence the are and they. – Kris May 22 '18 at 9:21

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