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Author Topic: When a modifier squints, the dead could die again and again  (Read 2485 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: September 19, 2009, 12:36:44 AM »

I’ve gone over yesterday’s and today’s issues of the four leading Metro Manila broadsheets and I’m happy to say that none of them has any grammar and semantic error serious enough to be critiqued here. Unless some flagrantly wrong usage in these papers had somehow escaped my scrutiny (and I’d be greatly obliged to hear from anyone who caught them), it looks like their writers and copyeditors had done a good job making their English grammar pretty well aboveboard this time.


Earlier, though, Frank Tucker, a reader of my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times, e-mailed me a digital copy of a crime news story in one of the four major broadsheets. That story ended with the following paragraph (quoted verbatim here):

“It was almost dawn when the discussion between Umali and Lapuz turned into a heated argument that prompted the shooting of Umali by Lapuz. Umali, however, managed to shoot back repeatedly killing Lapuz on the spot. He was rushed to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana* City but died at 6:45 a.m.”

Frank then posed this question: “Why rush him to the hospital just to watch him die again at 6:45 a.m.?”

This question perplexed me for several seconds. Indeed, it was only after I had gone over the passage twice mentally that I finally understood the problem and got the drift of the grammatically and semantically absurd situation that Frank was driving at.

Have you now gotten that drift yourself?

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Let’s now analyze that passage to see what mischievous grammar or semantic goblins had waylaid it:

There the two goblins are, in the second and third sentence:

“It was almost dawn when the discussion between Umali and Lapuz turned into a heated argument that prompted the shooting of Umali by Lapuz. Umali, however, managed to shoot back repeatedly killing Lapuz on the spot. He was rushed to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana City but died at 6:45 a.m.”
  
The first goblin turns out to be a missing comma before the phrase “killing Lapuz on the spot.” The absence of that comma has created what is known in English grammar as a squinting modifier—a modifier with such an ambiguous placement in a sentence that it can be understood to modify two separate, distinct words or phrases in that sentence.

That squinter in this particular case is, of course, the adverb “repeatedly.” Without a comma before it, “repeatedly” can be understood in two ways: to be modifying the verb phrase “shoot back,” and to be modifying the verb phrase “killing Lapuz” as well. Logically, of course, it should only do the former, such that the main clause of the sentence should read “Umali, however, managed to shoot back repeatedly.” In the absence of a comma after this main clause, however, the auxiliary clause can also be read as “repeatedly killing Lapuz on the spot.”

This is the absurd reading of the sentence that Frank Tucker is amusedly driving at. And then he also has a point—no matter how bizarre—when he asks that if the victim had in fact already been killed “on the spot,” and “repeatedly” at that, what’s the point in rushing him to the hospital? And how could he die again one more time at the hospital?

We can see now that apart from the missing comma and the squinting modifier in the second sentence of that paragraph, there’s also the semantic goblin in the third sentence—a wrong word choice as well as a semantic problem in “He was rushed to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana City but died at 6:45 a.m.” The more appropriate verb, of course, would be “brought”—Frank is right when he questions the wisdom of “rushing” the dead to the hospital—and the phrase “but died at 6:45 a.m.” should be excised to get rid of the absurd sense of double-dying in that sentence.

The corrected passage would then read as follows:

“It was almost dawn when the discussion between Umali and Lapuz turned into a heated argument that prompted the shooting of Umali by Lapuz. Umali, however, managed to shoot back repeatedly, killing Lapuz on the spot. The body of Lapuz was later brought to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana City.”

So what’s the moral of this flawed grammar and semantic usage?

There are actually three: (1) make sure of letting the comma do its job, (2) don’t allow a squinting modifier to ruin the logic of your sentence, and (3) don’t ever report that someone has died again who’s already dead.
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*The news story inadvertently used the place name “Lana” for what should have been “Naga.”

RELATED READING:
This week I turned my media watch to the flawed English usage in the evening newscast of a Metro Manila-based cable TV station. Check out my grammar critique of it in my English-usage column in the September 19 issue of The Manila Times.  

A recurrent glaring grammar error on cable news TV

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« Last Edit: October 30, 2017, 03:48:48 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Arvin Ortiz
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« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2009, 04:44:43 PM »

In the story, I think both Umali and Lapuz died, and that the "he" in the sentence "He was rushed...but died at 6:45 a.m.” referred to Umali who was first shot by Lapuz, not Lapuz who died on the spot.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2009, 04:46:31 PM by Arvin Ortiz » Logged
Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: September 20, 2009, 12:26:06 PM »

In the story, I think both Umali and Lapuz died, and that the "he" in the sentence "He was rushed...but died at 6:45 a.m.” referred to Umali who was first shot by Lapuz, not Lapuz who died on the spot.

You’re absolutely right, Arvin! I’ve gone over the entire story again and it turns out that it was actually Umali—not Lapuz—who “was rushed to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana City but died at 6:45 a.m.” This is actually another grammatical wrinkle in that news story—this time the use of the pronoun “he” with an unclear antecedent noun. That fuzzy pronoun had obviously triggered Frank Tucker’s confusion as to who killed who and who was killed first in that alleged gun duel.

Take a look at the problematic passage again:

“It was almost dawn when the discussion between Umali and Lapuz turned into a heated argument that prompted the shooting of Umali by Lapuz. Umali, however, managed to shoot back repeatedly killing Lapuz on the spot. He was rushed to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana City but died at 6:45 a.m.”

By virtue of proximity, the pronoun “he” in the last sentence would normally be understood to be referring to “Lapuz” as the antecedent noun. Only after much closer inspection—and that’s precisely what you’ve done—would it be discovered that that “he” is actually referring to “Umali” as antecedent noun, particularly because of the confusing presence of the squinting modifier “repeatedly” in the preceding sentence.

Of course, that pronoun-antecedent noun mix-up could easily have been avoided by specifying “Umali” as the subject of that last sentence:

“Umali, however, managed to shoot back repeatedly killing Lapuz on the spot. Umali was rushed to the Bicol Regional Hospital in Lana City but died at 6:45 a.m.”

The cautionary rule we can invoke here is this: When there’s a possibility of confusion as to what the antecedent noun of a pronoun might be, replace that pronoun outright with its antecedent noun. Even if it might sound repetitive, it’s not bad form to repeat the noun in such cases.

Had the reporter done that, the problem would have been confined to eliminating the squinting modifier in the previous sentence—and all would have been well with the logic and semantics of his reportage of that most unfortunate and violent chain of events.
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