Originally Published October 2017, Updated January 2024

Today’s topic is kind of technical: misrelated constructions. Ugly name, I know. It sounds like some kind of grammar geek speak. But if you want to improve your business writing skills, this is one mistake you don’t want to make. (Although it can be funny when it happens, as you’ll see…)

What’s a misrelated construction?

A misrelated construction happens when a word or phrase that’s supposed to be connected to a certain word or phrase isn’t and ends up connected to another word or phrase instead. The relationship is wrong, if you will, so it’s misrelated.

This text from a lost dog post should help to explain:

Our golden retriever is missing, he’s 8 years old and is wearing a bandana from the last time he got groomed. Please let me know if he turns up. Please call or text my husband 555-555-5555 he’s starting to look like an old man with grey around his eyes and snout.

The writer meant that the dog is grey around the eyes and snout, but wrote the post to say the husband is grey instead. The relationship is wrong. The phrase is misrelated.

Here’s another favorite. This chart is supposed to be a helpful tool for writers, helping them to choose more specific words. The irony is in the wording at the top, which reads, “As a writer, this has proven to be a truly valuable chart.” Do you see the error? As written, it says the chart is the writer. Shouldn’t a writer know better than to make this mistake?

improve business writing skills by avoiding mistakes like the one made in this chart for writers

And how about this headline?

Woman Says Snake Fell From Her Dashboard While Driving Car on Interstate 49.

Waaaaiiittt…the snake was driving the car?

One more? OK, I’d say this ad suffers from a misrelated construction too, because I think it’s telling us to plug in the box, right? And the box will stop intruders. That’s some box!

ad shows misrelated construction

If you want to improve your business writing skills, don’t do this!

But enough with the entertainment; let’s talk about why this mistake matters. Here’s one I wrote, but didn’t catch until later: “While waiting at the airport, a mom and child sat across from me eating.” At first glance, it might not look wrong because it simply says a mom and child were eating while waiting at the airport. But that’s not what I meant. I meant to say while I was waiting at the airport.

And there’s the issue: Misrelated constructions can end up funny, as in the lost dog post and the snake headline. But they can also lead to miscommunication—and that’s why we want to avoid them. (Well, and the fact that they make us look stupid, of course.)

Catching a misrelated construction before it goes public in your email or other business writing requires careful re-reading and proofreading, preferably with fresh eyes. Remember, we get used to what we write. Our eyes start to skip over our errors. Try to re-read your business writing with fresh eyes whenever you can!

Improving your business writing skills in general will also help you to avoid this mistake, and these monthly tips can help with that.

For one more chuckle to wrap this up, I’ll close with Groucho Marx, who aptly shows us how easy it is to write something silly when we’re not paying attention:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.

You’re welcome. 🙂

P.S. To really improve your business writing skills, take a class!

self editing class

Sharon Ernst is a retired freelance copywriter now on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes.