Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mr. President, Your Modifier Is Dangling.

By Laura Mahal

Three writers met at a coffee shop. I know, it sounds like a joke, but I take my grammar seriously. My copy editor ears perked up when I overheard several colorful renditions of Dump the Trump Talk.The writers were discussing the political importance of punctuation.

Writer #1: ‘Dump the Trump talk.’ Finally, a writer who is ready to move on! I can’t wait to read what she has to say.

Writer #2: Umm, I think she meant, let’s have a ‘Dump the Trump’ talk. There is no way this author supports that particular President-Elect.

Writer #3: No, you are both wrong. She clearly means, dump the ‘Trump talk’ – the meanness of the things he has to say.

Writing is a tricky business.

Authors are thinking about story. Journalists are considering deadlines. Speechwriters are wondering how their candidate’s speech will be received. That is, assuming the candidate sticks to the speech as it has been written.

Writing is downright perilous in this day and age. Granted, spoken English is different from written English, but in today's world social media is ready to capture and disseminate every grammatical gaffe. And there are plenty to go around.

Fortunately, copy editors are here to save the day.

Most people recognize the importance of punctuation. The meaning of certain sentences changes significantly when commas are omitted.

We don’t want to eat Grandpa, so we are sure to use a comma when we write: “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Dangling and misplaced modifiers sometimes slip past our notice. Don’t worry if you can't quite recall what you learned about modifiers when you were a junior in high school.

Dastardly Dangling and Maliciously Misplaced Modifiers: Examples provided by The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center

The girl was consoled by the nurse who had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

The modifier – “who had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills” – is misplaced. 

The person it is intended to modify is the girl, but the phrase has grabbed on to the innocent nurse instead, as the words are situated closer to her. That poor nurse could lose her job, when, in fact, she is kindly comforting her patient, exactly as the nurse should be, considering the patient has just taken an overdose of pills.

 I saw an accident walking down the street.

The modifier dangles, because the implied subject is missing from the sentence. 

[I was] walking down the street [when] I saw an accident. Let’s hope the accident wasn’t walking down the street. I’d like to believe the zombie apocalypse is years away. And even if zombies do start walking, let’s give them the credit for said action.

You are an intelligent person, so you had already mentally rewritten those sentences before I pointed out the implicit grammatical errors. But what about this one?

The infamous fat-shaming misplaced modifier

In the first of three Presidential debates, Donald Trump said this about cybersecurity:

I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC… [Secretary Clinton is] saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't - maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China... It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?

         -Donald Trump

I would hate to have to move a bed that weighs four-hundred pounds. Even with a number of brawny friends who were willing to help me, that could definitely take out someone's lower back for a full week.

So there you have it: This copy editor prays for the mean-spirited (and confusing) misplaced modifiers to go someplace far, far away. Perhaps to Moscow. Though Russians actually have a long history of beautiful and grammatically correct literature…

Beware the danger of dangling participles! 
Warning: Graphic Content

As to “Trump talk,” I will avoid the political implications of emotionally laden words such as unbelievable and disaster and simply close by saying:

Mr. President, please don't let your participles dangle in public. Thank you.

Read more about the need for copy editing:


Zach Gilbert said...

I might be concerned that you are critiquing live speech and not a polished finished draft. In either case, your observations has produced an insightful blog. Thank you! As a public speaker who rarely uses notes, I must say; spoken words, do fall upon the listener in a rough draft state and are highly susceptible to error, if they are not pulled from a polished script. My rough drafts are very confusing and disjointed, full of error, for that reason I am grateful for copy editors. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and I further realize, sentence structure is our only hope to hold up a good story. (Pun intended) As for Trump, maybe in time he will learn to suckle the teleprompter and master the empty art of ear tickling, but for now, if your irritation of him continues to prompt insightful aid to writers such as myself, then I must continue to hope that the President will leave his modifiers dangling.

shenke said...

I have come to love and respect any one who has that certain special skill of copy editing with the Eagle eye I am not endowed with. I fear I will always rely on others in that capacity and reading something like this reminds me that it is more common place than we assume in the writing realm. Thank you for these tidbits that remind us all how important this stage of our writing becomes when we wish to convey real information that is communicable.

JC Lynne said...

I taught English for ten years and I hated to teach grammar. I'm not ashamed to say I worked with it by accessing students' intuitive understanding as speakers. I never diagrammed sentences. That said, I have a great appreciation for folks who have that eye for it.
I've recently embraced the oxford comma after years of bristling against it.

Thank you copy editors for doing what I hate.

Deborah Nielsen said...

I'm one of those nerds who like to diagram sentences. Lots of other people groan. But it's helpful; you don't end up with dangling things and you can figure out what the subject of the sentence really is so you use the correct tense verb.
I used to edit a couple of newsletters for a state-wide motorcycle group in Wyoming. Don't get me started on run-on paragraphs, the number of columns starting out with, "Well, it's . . . ", the wrong use of they're/their/there, etc. It was either a copy editor's worst nightmare or dream job, depending on one's perspective and mood.
Back in the day when I took journalism classes (late 1970s), the instructor stopped the class for almost a week and had everyone diagram sentences because grammar and punctuation were so poor. High school didn't prepare one too well for college in those days, either.
Thanks for an enjoyable read!

Abbie Taylor said...

This gave me a good laugh, especially the video, but it makes a good point about proper grammar usage.

Abbie Taylor said...

This gave me a good laugh, especially the video, but it makes a good point about proper grammar usage.

Laura Mahal said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments.

I'll admit that I am a silver-lining sort of person. As Mr. Gilbert pointed out, one of the pluses of having a President Trump in office for four years (perchance) is that English teachers across the globe can have a field day. Here is just one article referring to Mr. Trump's misuse of the English language:

My son and daughter are thirteen and sixteen, respectively. They attend outstanding schools. Neither has learned how to diagram a sentence. Both have picked up fairly sound practice in writing skills via the osmosis of growing up in a home where proper English is spoken most of the time. (Full disclosure - I can also cuss like a sailor. More to the point, like an M.P., as in a Military Policewoman. I was a 95B for a period of time in the early nineties... My husband went to an English-language school in India. He speaks proper British English, but is also capable of using the most amazingly colorful language.)

They ask for me to copyedit their school papers and I am glad to do so. Thus, they are learning the basics of what they need to know as they eventually head to college. But I fear for many young people who don't ever receive such instruction, formal or otherwise. We cannot fault individuals who haven't been taught otherwise, can we?

I copyedit because it brings me joy. I really don't judge. Some writers have brilliant minds, incredible story lines, and intriguing characters, but cannot spell to save their lives. That is where a copy editor comes in... we thrive in making other people look good! I'm a writer, as well, so I understand what it is to get caught up in plot and forget all about keeping tenses consistent or verbs as active as possible.

It takes a village. A village that includes copy editors, writers, newspeople, and politicians. We can keep one another honest, can't we? :-)

Laura Mahal said...

Hi, Robert. I'm not sure why your comment didn't show up here, versus in my inbox, so I'm going to paste it for everyone to read. Robert asks: "English Grammar Checking Software is an innovative technology that promises to improve and edit your English writing with one goal: transforming your writing correct, professional and rich. Is that possible?"

I do know authors who swear by grammar-checking software. That said, I also know authors who have had a miserable experience (with lasting negative ramifications for their book sales) because they accidentally hired copy editors who relied on software that wasn't up to snuff. One editor missed at least thirty-two misspelled words--that's how many I counted before I quit keeping track--because she exclusively used software tools. In other words, the editor didn't follow-up with an actual page-by-page review. Until the author reached out to me, I must confess, I had never heard of such a practice. If the tools were foolproof, then the copyediting profession would have been rendered obsolete. This is not yet the case.

Software doesn't always catch homonyms (words that sound the same, but their spellings and meanings are different: there/their/they're, for example) or repeated words and phrases (does the protagonist "peek" twenty-four times in the book? If so, a copy editor would catch that and suggest alternative words.) As far as spell-check programs, what dictionary is linked to that software? This matters because the two primary dictionaries--the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and the New Oxford American--disagree on some counts. Is "mind-set" or "mindset" correct? That actually depends on which dictionary one is referring to...

I don't mean to slam all editing tools, merely to caution that one ought not to rely on them exclusively. In the end, there is no substitute for having real eyes on the page--whether that be a professional copy editor or a critique group member who happens to have an eagle eye for grammar and punctuation. Here is a useful overview of some of the many tools available to an author (and, by the way, I'd welcome others to chime in on their experiences using grammar-checking software):

Thanks for reaching out, Robert! I hope I've answered your question.

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