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#1 Annoying Grammar Error:
What I consider a very serious sign of English grammar inadequacy is a writer's blissful use of footloose modifiers and an editor's blind spot for them. Look at this glaring example of a footloose modifier that came out on the front page of a leading newspaper:
Wanted for killing of leftists in her home country, Spain arrests widow of Juan Peron and former president of Argentina, Isabel Peron, now 75.
Such a mind-bending sentence construction invariably provokes questions like these: What arrested who? Who arrested what? What does that phrase up front intend to modify in the main clause? Who or what, in fact, is the subject or the doer of the action in the sentence?
If you are up-to-date in world events, of course, you'd discover in a snap that the real subject of the sentence is "Isabel Peron," not "Spain," and that what we have here is a modifier so recklessly misplaced as to make the statement absurd. Indeed, the phrase "wanted for killing leftists in her home country" should apply to "Isabel Peron" and not by any stretch to "Spain."
I've always wondered why professional writers could make such a very serious mistake, and why some editors couldn't catch it before it gets printed. After all, applying the general rule for avoiding misplaced modifiers isn't really that difficult. It's simply to position the modifying word or phrase as close as possible to the noun it modifies, as the following construction does very efficiently:
Wanted for killing of leftists in her home country, Isabel Peron , 75, widow of Juan Peron and former president of Argentina, is arrested in Spain.
In the construction above, by simply putting the phrase "wanted for killing of leftists in her home country" in its proper place, it's now possible to properly modify its true subject, "Isabel Peron." Indeed, applying this rule routinely can make writers and editors avoid creating grammar monstrosities in print much too often.
Now let's dissect two similarly disturbing specimens of footloose modifiers—this time of the dangling type. A dangling modifier, we will remember, is a descriptive word or phrase for something that isn't made clear in the sentence, often making that sentence illogical.
Look at this dangler that I came across sometime ago in a provincial newspaper's Internet edition:
Marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use, the only known black market source of ketamine is via the illicit diversion of supplies from manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and even veterinary clinics.
In this sentence, note that the modifying phrase just can't seem to find a proper word or phrase to modify. The nearest possible subject that the phrase "marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use" can modify is the noun phrase "black market source of ketamine," but this gives rise to a recursive, nonsensical notion. (Work it out in your mind if you dare.) Upon closer scrutiny, of course, we find that the true subject of that phrase is the noun "ketamine" alone, but then we are still left with the problem of reconstructing the sentence to get rid of its nasty dangler.
After at least several tries, we should be able to come up with this dangle-free sentence:
The only known black market source of ketamine, which is marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use, is the illicit diversion of supplies from manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and even veterinary clinics.
(By that time, though, we probably would have already lost our appetite for reading the rest of the news story.)
At any rate, the correct construction above clearly makes the noun phrase "the only known black market source of ketamine" the subject of the sentence. That noun phrase is then modified by the nonrestrictive relative clause "which is marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use." What follows is, of course, the predicate of the sentence—"is the illicit diversion of supplies from manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and even veterinary clinics."
A likely objection to the reconstructed sentence above, of course, is that even after the dangling modifier is eliminated, it still sounds too complicated. Indeed, like its original construction, the sentence packs much too much information, thus requiring a great deal of mental effort to be understood. To those bothered by this, I offer this much simpler two-sentence construction:
Ketamine is marketed as a tranquilizer for human and veterinary use. Its only known black market source is the illicit diversion of supplies from manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and even veterinary clinics.
Now, not all dangling modifiers occur at the beginning of sentences like our first example; they can wreak semantic havoc from the tail end of sentences as well. Consider the dangler in this recent front-page photo caption of a leading daily:
The military is now pouring hundreds of Marines into the area where 14 Marines were killed, 10 of them mutilated, to run after the barbaric perpetrators.
Now, what immediately comes to mind when we read this perplexing sentence is this question: What's the prepositional phrase "to run after the barbaric perpetrators" doing in that sentence? It seems to modify either of the two phrases that refer to the slain Marines, but that's semantically and logically impossible. It gives rise to the absurd notion that the slain Marines were still being expected to run after their killers. Again, after so much cerebral effort, we come to the conclusion that the phrase "to run after the barbaric perpetrators" actually relates to the "hundreds of marines" instead, as this dangle-free construction of that sentence shows:
The military is now pouring hundreds of Marines into Basilan to run after the brutal killers of their 14 comrades, 10 of whom were mutilated.
(By the way, I thought that "barbaric perpetrators" was perhaps too emotional and unjournalistic a description, so I wasn't able to resist changing it to the more circumspect "brutal killers.")
As to squinting modifiers, I haven't come across an annoying but sufficiently instructive specimen in the major media outlets lately, so I'm offering as a specimen the same remarkable squinter—one from a mobile phone service print ad—that I had come across in a newspaper and had taken up in my Times column sometime earlier:
"A PC in every home" is what Bill Gates envisioned as a fresh college dropout.
Here, "as a fresh college dropout" definitely meets the criterion of a squinting modifier: it's so ambiguously placed in the sentence that it "squints"—meaning that it can be construed to modify two separate, distinct words or phrases in that sentence.
Try to find a way yourself of getting rid of that squint in that sentence. In the next chapter, I'll show how some readers of my column in the Times had attempted to do it, after which we'll discuss more extensively how to prevent all three types of footloose modifiers from ruining our written and spoken English.
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