Friday, June 27, 2008

modifier modification

I think I've mentioned that I've been doing a lot of editing for my boyfriend--both of his still-not-finished thesis and of a travel journal he wants to make into a book at some point. I find this work to be very satisfying because it gives me the power to fix grammar errors. However, since becoming an editor in this regard, I've noticed an increase in the intensity of the psychological discomfort I experience when I encounter grammar errors that I cannot fix, which is to say, most of them. I feel especially uneasy when these are errors which will be read by many people, who, I fear, won't even know the difference. My Grammar Errors album on facebook has served as a helpful antidote to this discomfort, but it only works for errors that are big enough to photograph, which excludes those found in books, Christmas newsletters, and online forums. In an effort to alleviate a bit of my current annoyance with misplaced and dangling modifiers, I am going to catalog just a few here.

I'll start with one I ran into 6 months ago but which has stuck with me. Dear friends of mine, in their first Christmas letter as a married couple, wrote the following sentence: "After exactly ten years as a vegetarian, Nathan's first Thanksgiving turkey has Katie eating meat." The modifier here is supposed to be modifying Katie, the (former, apparently) vegetarian, but, grammatically speaking, it is actually modifying the turkey, which is the subject of the sentence. Ergo, if one were to read this sentence the way it is written, one would properly assume that this turkey was a vegetarian (and also at least 10 years old, for that matter.) A correct sentence would have been something like this: "After exactly ten years as a vegetarian, Katie eats meat: namely, Nathan's first Thanksgiving turkey!"

Katie and Nathan should know better, because, well, everyone should know better, but it gets worse. As it turns out, plenty of people who make a living by writing make this same mistake! Take A.J. Jacobs, whose book, The Year of Living Biblically, I am currently reading (and loving, but that's beside the point.) A few pages ago, I read the following pair of sentences: "I spend a half hour tidying the medicine cabinet. I notice that the ingredients in Chlor-Trimeton go all the way from A(acacia) to Z(zein), which, as a former encyclopedia reader, appeals to me. " The former encyclopedia reader, of course, is A.J. himself. It is not zein, nor is it the fact that the ingredients go from A to Z (either could be concluded from the grammatical arrangement of the sentence as it is). The sentence, therefore, should go something more like this: "I notice that the ingredients in Chlor-Trimeton go all the way from A(Acacia) to Z(zein), which appeals to me, a former encyclopedia reader."

Even my beloved Augusten Burroughs has trouble with modifiers. In his most recent book, A Wolf at the Table (which was a little disappointing to me--and not just because of the grammar), he writes the following sentence: "Despite slathering himself with lotion, blood continued to soak through his clothing, making him look stabbed, wounded." This one is actually, in my opinion, worse than the ones I just mentioned, because the object of the modifier is not merely far away from the modifier, but is actually completely absent from the sentence. This modifier, therefore, is "dangling" rather than just "misplaced." The modifer ("despite slathering himself with lotion") is obviously referring to a person (hence the personal pronoun "himself"), but there is no person in the sentence at all. It's a mess. Here's a better version: "Even as my father slathered himself with lotion, his blood continued to soak through his clothing, making him look stabbed, wounded."

Perhaps the most heartbreaking dangling modifier I have seen latley was one I ran into on the etsy forums. When you read it you'll understand why it's heartbreaking. Here it is: "As a former English teacher, yes, that would be a correctly used set of commas in your example." That's right. An English teacher dangling a modifier. It makes me cry a little. Who is this person? Well, that's the thing; we don't know who she is, because she is not the subject of the sentence like she should be. What she meant, I hope, was this: "As a former English teacher, I can tell you that you have used commas correctly in your example." (To her credit, she was right about the commas.)

The moral of the story is this: When you write a sentence with a modifier in it, ask yourself what (or who) you are referring to, and then make sure that this person/place/thing/idea is 1) in the sentence and 2) next to the modifier. In doing so, you will not only communicate more clearly and accurately; you will also make a positive impact on my personal mental health.

Thank you, and have a nice day.

1 comment:

tanyBUG said...

don't read my blog! lol!