By Rahaman Onike

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English language as medium of communication is not only rule guided, it also gives prominence to the law of proximity.  Wrong application of any of the laws of proximity in the writer’s craft, may constitute errors in usage and style.  Every good writer therefore needs to understand the nitty-gritty of the law of proximity.

There is no more important rule of good writing than the law of proximity, which lays it down that any qualifying word or group of words should be placed as near as possible to the word qualified.  Failure to observe these rules of proximity are common causes of vague, woolly, and feeble writing (Lamb, 2000).

When a writer breaches the law of proximity, such linguistic infraction may lead to ambiguity.  For the avoidance of doubts, ambiguity refers to a situation where a word, phrase or sentence is capable of more than one cognitive meaning.  It is a linguistic concept which arises when there is no distinct or clear cut meaning to a word or expression in use.

Ambiguous expressions are subject to multiple interpretation.  This way, ambiguity relates to polysemy.  However, polysemy is associated with words, while ambiguity is related more to sentences (Ogbulogo, 2005).

In the sentence, “I was surprised to see the man who was due to play tennis today at Wimbledon in Paris last night”.  This sentence plays havoc both with geography and with home.  Looking at the sentence carefully, partisans will be surprised to learn that the home of English tennis is in their city, and every.  One will be surprised to learn that today is included in last night.  What really happened in Paris was not the tennis at Wimbledon but the surprisal.  Hence, the qualifying words “in Paris last night” ought to have been placed as near as possible to the words “surprised to see”.  The neatest position to place them is at the beginning of the sentence, where they correctly qualify the whole of the main clause.  In line with the law of proximity, the sentence needs to be revised thus: Last night, in Paris, I was surprised to see the man who was due to play tennis today at Wimbledon.

Another relevant example of breach of law of proximity could be seen in the sentence: “The umpire ought to replace the bails, not the batsman”.  The sentence indicates that the batsman is subjected to treatment which no spirited cricketer ought to tolerate.  The real antithesis, of course, is not between “bails” and “batsman”, but between “umpire” and “batsman”.  The sentence needs revision thus: The umpire not the batsman, ought to replace the bails.

Wrong placement of ‘only’ may also constitute breach of proximity.  Let’s examine this sentence: “The books should only be replaced by the librarian”.  With the structure of the sentence, the librarian’s function seems to be confined to putting books back on the shelves; by implication he is forbidden to find books for library users.  But no doubt the writer of the notice really meant that no one but the librarian was allowed to replace the books.  In this sense, the word ‘only’ supposed to be put immediately in front of the word (or very closely connected group of words), which it is intended to qualify.

Hence, the sentence needs to be revised to read: The books should be replaced only by the librarian.  More specifically, law of proximity governs misplaced modifiers.  From grammatical viewpoint, misplaced modifier occurs when the modifiers is placed too far from the word it should modify.  Of course, misplacement of phrases and clauses can lead to ridiculously unclear sentences often with a humorous result (Forlini, 2000).  Therefore, the law of proximity guiding the use of modifiers states “to avoid unclear sentences, place modifying phrases and clauses as close as possible to the words they modify”.

To revise a sentence that contains a misplaced modifier, first is to identify the word to be modified.  Then, move the modifying phrase or clause as close as possible to the word that it modifies, while maintaining the intended meaning of the sentence.

Let’s look at cases of misplaced modifiers: “The small boy ate a hot dog wearing a yellow shirt”.  Obviously, the sentence is awkward and unclear due to misplacement of modifier.  It can be made clear under revision thus: “The small boy ‘wearing a yellow shirt ate a hot dog”.

Let’s look at another relevant example of misplaced modifier thus: Mrs. Wilson blamed Richard for the damage done to the lawn mower ‘last evening’.  The sentence needs to be revised for clarity thus: Mrs. Wilson blamed Richard for the damage done ‘last evening’ to the lawn mower.

For further insight into the problem of misplaced modifier, let’s examine another example thus: “A bicyclist ran into a fence ‘riding in the race’”. The sentence is not only awkward but it is ambiguous.  For clarity, the sentence needs to be revised thus: “A bicyclist ‘riding in the race’ ran into a fence”.  In each of the given examples, what requires is to move the phrase or clause so that it is closer to the word it modifies.

Newspaper headlines may contain misplaced modifier too.  Let’s examine this newspaper headline: “John Adams sentenced to life for murder of parents showing no remorse”.  The headline sounds as if he killed them because they showed no remorse.  The revised version with the modifier (showing no remorse) repositioned next to the word it modifies (John Adams), makes the intended meaning clearer.With the revision, the sentence becomes clearer and more acceptable thus: John Adams, showing no remorse, sentenced to life for murder of parents.

Sometimes such a misplacement of modifier can easily distort the writer’s intention e.g. “A man should never try to eat soup with a moustache”.  The sentence sounds ambiguous except it is revised thus: “A man with a moustache should never try to eat soup”.

Law of proximity also applies to rules of concord and agreement otherwise known as proximity concord in English Grammar.  Proximity concord refers to the agreement between the verb and its subject used not on motion but on the fact that there is a Nominal Group which is immediately close to the verb (Wiredu, 1998).

With regards to proximity concord, we have examples such as “Either John or his friends are sleeping” / “Either the friends or John is sleeping”.  In these examples, the plural form ‘are’ is selected for the first sentence because of its proximity to the plural Nominal Group the ‘friends’.  And the singular verb ‘is’ has been chosen, in the second example, because of its proximity to the Nominal Group ‘John’.

Accordingly, we have the following examples in which proximity is used to select the form of the verb e.g. More than one soldier was captured; One or more soldiers were captured.

The principle of proximity concord also states that if two or more subjects are coordinated (joined) by the correlative co-ordinators ‘either … or’ or neither … nor’, ‘not only … but’ the subject that is closest to the verb determines the concord – the rest (first ones) are ignored. For example, “Neither the people nor the king has appeared”.  Or Neither the king nor the people have appeared.

Another relevant example following ‘either … or’ proximity concord rule: if Sandra fails her exams, either her parents or her sister is to be blamed.  From the example, we use ‘is’ even when it has her parents which should have attracted the plural verb ‘are’.  But the subject there: her parents and her sister are joined by ‘either … or’, so it is the last one ‘her sister’ that will determine the concord since it is singular, the verb also has to be singular.

However, where the coordinated subject is a title, a name, a quotation etc, it is treated as singular: The Lion and the Jewel” is a play by Wole Soyinka / Rice and stew was my favorite meal in school.

Also, where the coordinated subject are modified by ‘every’ or ‘each’, the verb is subject as in “Every girl and boy in the class dresses beautifully” or “Each male and female child was killed”.

There are some exemptions to law of proximity concord.  For instance, where the Nominal Groups are linked by certain prepositions which appear similar to coordinators, concord relations will occur e.g. “The referee, as well as his linesmen is running away” / “The players, together with their coach, have escaped”.  In both examples, there is grammatical concord – subject agrees with the verb.  In those situational contexts, proximity of verb to a noun does not matter at all.

Therefore, it will be wrong to have the following forms based on proximity e.g. “The referee as well as his linesmen are running away” or The players, together with their coach, has escaped”.  Under the situational context, it is wrong to make the verb agree  in number with the noun immediately before it.

In addition, where the verb is separated from the subject by some element which is attached to the head noun;In this respect, proximity has no effect on concord relations e.g. “A lady with such gifts is expected to win”.  In such case, concord arises between the head noun ‘lady’ in the given example.  Since ‘lady’ is singular, the verb ‘is’ is selected. Even though the verb ‘is’ is close to the noun ‘gifts’, the sentence is not affected by the law of proximity.  Let’s look at another example, The fumes from the big bottle are binding us.  In the given example, ‘fumes’ is the head word so the plural ‘are’ is selected since the head noun is plural.

From the above inferences, one can see the need for writers to understand how the law of proximity works.  Sometimes one may have to apply formal subject-verb agreement rules but occasionally the writer’s craft may demand the use of concord proximity rules otherwise known as agreement by proximity.

Sometimes, syntax itself makes it impossible to follow formal agreement rule.  In a sentence like “Either Malik or his brothers are to bring the dessert”.  Here, the verb can’t agree with both parts of the subject.

In the contemporary usage, proximity does not always influence a singular verb to be plural, sometimes the proximity noun is singular and the subject plural.  Again, proximity agreement may pass in speech and other forms of unplanned discourse; in print, it may be considered an error.

Based on the foregoing, one must be very careful in using sentences containing proximity concord except when it becomes inescapable.  Also, readers are enjoined to master the law of proximity and its correct applications particularly when it comes to use of modifiers so as make our writing elegant and fantastic.



Brown A.C, J. Nilson, F.W. Shaw and R.A Weldon (1998) Grammar and Composition: Boston, Houghton Mifflin pp 154-155

Depraetere I and C. Langford (2014) Advance English Grammar – A Linguistic Approach: New York, Bloomsbury Publishing pp 132-134

Forlini G. (2000) Grammar and Composition: New York, Prentice Hall pp 133-135

Hult C.A. and T.A. Huckin (2008) The New Century Handbook: New York, Pearson Longman pp 700-701

Joseph G. (2015) Introductory Semantics: Jos, Wais Printing Press pp 65-67

Lamb G.F. (2000) English for General Certificate: London, George G. Harrap & Co pp 243-244

Ogbulogo C. (2005) Concepts of Semantics: Lagos, Sam Iroanusi Publishing pp 36-37

Palmer F.R. (1989) Semantics: London, Cambridge University Press pp 147-148

Wiredu J.F (1998) Organised English Grammar: Accra, Academic Publications pp 109-112

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