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Author Topic: Dealing with annoying English grammar errors (3rd in a series of 14)  (Read 145 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 13, 2017, 10:10:04 PM »

This is the third in a series of 14 essays on what I consider as the most annoying English grammar errors. It is running consecutively here in the Forum from November 7, 2017 every Tuesday and Friday until December 22.

3 – Getting rid of squinting modifiers from our prose

In the second part of this series, I invited readers to get rid of the annoying squinting modifier in this sentence from a 2007 mobile phone service print ad: “‘A PC in every home’ is what Bill Gates envisioned as a fresh college dropout.” A squinting modifier, as we defined it, is a modifier so ambiguously placed in a sentence that it can be understood to modify two separate, distinct words or phrases in that sentence; in short, it’s a cross-eyed modifier.

Four readers at that time sent me their attempts to get rid of that squint, which makes the phrase “as a fresh college dropout” absurdly modify both “Bill Gates” and “a PC in every home.” One attempt eliminated the squinter but made it a misplaced modifier instead; another similarly eliminated the squinter but introduced a semantic quirk in the process. A total of seven attempts wonderfully did the job without any semantic mishap.

Here’s the attempt of Rosauro F., an electronics and communications engineer who was then working in Kuwait: “As a fresh college dropout, what is needed is to have a PC in every home as what Bill Gates has envisioned.” The squint is gone, but we can see that the phrase “as a fresh college dropout” has become a misplaced modifier this time, wrongly modifying the whole main clause instead of “Bill Gates.” The structure of the main clause has become craggy as well.

Reader Nora Baua offered two revisions: “‘A PC in every home’, is what Bill Gates, as a fresh college dropout, envisioned.” “Bill Gates, a college dropout, envisioned a PC in every home.” The first version would have been acceptable if not for the disruptive comma after the word “home,” but the second version admirably got rid of the squint.

Jaye Riggs, a former US Navy administrative assistant, related that in the navy, they were always encouraged to use active sentences instead of passive ones. She therefore used the active voice in two ways to eliminate the squint: “When Bill Gates dropped out of college, he envisioned ‘a PC in every home.’” “Bill Gates envisioned ‘a PC in every home’ when he dropped out of college.” I think both versions are great!

Highly energetic reader Marcos Agayo did seven squint-surgery routines—all grammatically and semantically correct. I can only give four of his best shots here due to limited space: “‘A PC in every home’ is what Bill Gates envisioned when he was a fresh college dropout.” “As a fresh college dropout, Bill Gates envisioned ‘a PC in every home.’” “Bill Gates, as a fresh college dropout, envisioned ‘a PC in every home.’” “‘A PC in every home’ is what Bill Gates, as a fresh college dropout, envisioned.” Great job, Marcos!

So again, how do we prevent all three types of footloose modifiers—misplaced, danglers, and squinters—from ruining our English? The general rule is to always position a modifying word or phrase as close as possible to the noun it modifies.


But for misplaced and dangling modifiers, in particular, we can banish them forever by pursuing three general sentence construction strategies. Let’s see how these strategies work by applying them to this annoying dangler: “Having missed work a whole month due to illness, a medical certificate was necessary.”

Strategy #1: Identify the doer of the action, say “I,” and make it the subject of the main clause: “Having missed work a whole month due to illness, I needed a medical certificate.”

Strategy #2: Convert the modifying phrase into a clause that identifies the doer of the action: “I missed work a whole month due to illness, so I needed a medical certificate.”

Strategy #3: If possible, combine the modifying phrase and the main clause into a single clause: “I needed a medical certificate after missing work a whole month due to illness.”


In Part 4 of this series, we’ll take up mangled idiomatic expressions as No. 2 of the grammar errors that annoy me most. (2007)

This essay,3nd of a series of 14, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the August 11, 2007 issue of The Manila Times. It subsequently formed part of the book The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors, ©2008 by the author, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

(Next: Unmangling mangled idiomatic expressions)   Friday, November 17, 2017
« Last Edit: November 13, 2017, 11:45:00 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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