Author Topic: Misplaced modifiers in Inquirer and Rappler articles  (Read 8095 times)

Gerry T. Galacio

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Misplaced modifiers in Inquirer and Rappler articles
« on: June 14, 2014, 06:33:52 AM »
[1] From "Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight" Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 2, 2014

Did the writer intend to describe Donaire as "stunning but strange?" If yes, then the headline is correct. But why would Donaire be strange?

I think what the writer meant to describe as "stunning but strange" was how Donaire won, not Donaire himself. If that's the case, then the headline suffers from a misplaced modifier.

The possible headlines could have been:

"Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win"

"Donaire wins title fight stunningly but strangely"


[2] From "RH law: A mixed blessing" published April 11, 2014 at http://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/55221-rh-law-mixed-blessing

The first 2 paragraphs of the article read:

Quote
One could say the Supreme Court decision on the contentious Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law is the judgment of Solomon.

Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, both pro-RH and anti-RH claimed success. The decision was hailed as “win-win.”

What was "handed down?" The Supreme Court's RH decision, that's obvious from the lead. But the way the 2nd paragraph is written, "Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing" wrongly modifies "both pro-RH and anti-RH."

Possible rewrite:

"Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, the decision was hailed as 'win-win' for both pro-RH and anti-RH groups."

Notes:

On the Rappler article's use of "one" in the lead: "Never use 'one' as a pronoun." I remember this advice from Dr. Thelma Kintanar, my English I-II professor in UP Diliman way back in 1973.

Also, the phrase "One could say" in the lead should have been deleted. Jakob Nielsen, acknowledged guru of writing for the Internet, says that Internet users typically read only the first two words of a paragraph. Nielsen tells writers to "frontload" their sentences or paragraphs.  Please read Nielsen's article "How Users Read on the Web" at http://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/
« Last Edit: June 15, 2014, 05:24:42 AM by Gerry T. Galacio »

Joe Carillo

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Re: Misplaced modifiers in Inquirer and Rappler articles
« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2014, 12:25:34 AM »
“Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight.”
 
Of course, you are right on the mark when you deem that headline as suffering from a misplaced modifier. Indeed, it couldn’t have been Donaire who was “stunning but strange,” but the way he emerged victorious in that boxing bout.

(To put that headline in context, Filipino boxer Nonito Donaire Jr.—bleeding profusely from an “accidental headbutt” on the left eye—won the WBA Featherweight title by unanimous technical decision over South African Simpiwe Vetyeka on May 31, 2014.)

But, it might well be asked, precisely why is “stunning but strange” a misplaced modifier in that headline? And if so, why must we make a fuss about it? Shouldn’t we just condone and forgive it considering that the body of the news story certainly captured the correct sense of that headline anyway?

Recall now that by definition, a misplaced modifier is a word or group of words positioned or attached to the sentence in the wrong place, or is not placed near enough to the word it’s supposed to modify, so its ends up modifying the wrong word. When this happens, of course, what is said isn’t the same as that intended by the writer or speaker. It’s in this sense that the headline “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight” seriously miscommunicates how and why he won that fight.

So what do we do with the misplaced modifier in “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight”?

Your first suggested rewrite, “Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win,” is grammatically airtight but unfortunately suffers from convoluted syntax. There just are too many disparate words jostling to modify the noun “win”—the three words in the adjective phrase “stunning but strange” and the two words in the noun phrase “title fight.” To attenuate the convolution and make sense of that modifying phrase, it’s tempting to hyphenate those complex modifiers as follows: “Donaire in stunning-but-strange title-fight win.” But then this would just add another grammatical, even more serious, kink to that headline.

And what about your other suggested rewrite: “Donaire wins title fight stunningly but strangely”?

That headline is grammatically and semantically much better than the first, but I must put on record that in journalistic writing and particularly in headline writing, there’s a very deep aversion to the use of adverbs ending in “-ly,” and deeper still to their use in serial succession, as in “stunningly but strangely.”

We have thus reached an impasse regarding that seriously flawed original headline and the two alternatives you presented, so perhaps we should consider the following third alternative that I think places the modifier where it rightfully should be:

“Donaire wins in stunning but strange title fight.”

Let me just add that it’s not always easy to come up with an arresting news headline that fits the fixed character count of the printed or digital column, so I tend to be forgiving when the headline writer resorts to mild to moderate contortions in grammar and syntax to make the fit. But I agree with you that we have to draw the line when the contortion leads to semantic atrocity, as in that headline from that leading Philippine broadsheet.

Now, Gerry, as to your critique about the faulty modifier in the Rappler.com article about the RH law, I agree with you that the first sentence of the second sentence of the passage in question is semantically faulty. The main clause, “both pro-RH and anti-RH claimed success,” isn’t the proper subject of the modifying participial phrase “handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing,” so what we have here is a dangling modifier that makes the statement absurd.

By definition, a dangling modifier is usually a phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, and is often—but not always—located at the beginning of a sentence. A dangling modifier usually functions as an adjective but is unable to clearly modify a particular word in the sentence or, in the worst case, it ends up modifying the wrong word.

The correct subject of that dangling modifying phrase is, of course, the Supreme Court decision, and the following rewrite you offered reflects that fact very nicely:

“Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, the decision was hailed as ‘win-win’ for both pro-RH and anti-RH groups.”   

P.S. Please accept my apologies for this much delayed response to your critique. I unfortunately overlooked it due to an urgent personal undertaking that had preoccupied me for the past three weeks.

Gerry T. Galacio

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Joe,

[1] Your rewrite of the Donaire headline is so much better than mine. When I was doing that rewrite ("Donaire in stunning but strange title fight win"), I thought it wasn't quite right since I didn't have a verb in it (label head or wooden head, as it's called). Reviewing my rewrite based on your comments, I notice now that I used a noun stack (also called noun chain, noun cluster, or noun sandwich).

[2] Here's another example of a dangling modifier, this time from Starweek Magazine article "Aguinaldo Shrine: History you can visit " at http://www.philstar.com/starweek-magazine/2014/06/15/1334865/aguinaldo-shrine-history-you-can-visit

Quote
MANILA, Philippines - Being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo, people expect me to know much about this house which was built in 1845 by my great great grandparents, Trinidad Valerio Famy and Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo, a former gobernadorcillo of the town of Kawit. The house was originally a nipa thatched and timber structure where two other former town mayors of Kawit were born – Crispulo Aguinaldo (June 10, 1864) and his younger brother Emilio Aguinaldo (March 22, 1869).

Perhaps, this forum's other members can point out the dangling modifier in the lead's first sentence and propose their own rewrite.

[3] Are we being "grammar nazis" by insisting on rules for grammar or writing? Why do need to point out errors in grammar or writing? Two reasons come immediately to my mind: One, good grammar leads to effective communication. Two, writers will improve their craft if their errors are pointed out.

[4] I read several years ago an article by Dr. Lourdes Bautista (Professor Emeritus, DLSU) about "Standard Filipino English." Dr. Bautista distinguished between categorical rules ("cannot be broken") and variable rules ("open to changeable application").

Is the rule on avoiding misplaced modifiers or dangling modifiers a categorical rule or a variable rule? This article from Duke University observes that dangling modifiers are now rampant in scientific writing. Science writers seem to think that dangling modifiers fall under variable rules. Here's the link: https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=dangling_modifiers
« Last Edit: June 23, 2014, 05:48:57 AM by Gerry T. Galacio »

Joe Carillo

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Re: Misplaced modifiers in Inquirer and Rappler articles
« Reply #3 on: June 28, 2014, 12:13:06 AM »
Gerry, in my reply to your previous posting on misplaced  modifiers, I discussed how the misplaced modifying phrase in the headline “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight” miscommunicated its intended sense. I then suggested “Donaire wins in stunning but strange title fight” as a rewrite to put that headline on firmer semantic footing.

Now let me share a few more thoughts about this other disjointed-sounding passage that you presented:

Quote
One could say the Supreme Court decision on the contentious Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law is the judgment of Solomon.

Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, both pro-RH and anti-RH claimed success. The decision was hailed as “win-win.”

You commented: “What was ‘handed down’? The Supreme Court’s RH decision, that’s obvious from the [first paragraph]. But the way the 2nd paragraph is written, ‘Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing’ wrongly modifies ‘both pro-RH and anti-RH’.”

You offered this rewrite for that second paragraph: “Handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing, the decision was hailed as ‘win-win’ for both pro-RH and anti-RH groups.”

That’s definitely a superb rewrite, for it correctly identifies and positions “the decision”—not “both pro-RH and anti-RH groups”—as the true, legitimate subject of the modifying participial phrase “handed down at the eleventh hour after much colloquy and handwringing.”

But then I must disagree with your contention that that participial phrase wrongly modifies the subject “both pro-RH and anti-RH” in the original sentence. It doesn’t and, both grammatically and semantically, couldn’t possibly do so. This is because that participial phrase isn’t a misplaced modifying phrase like “stunning and strange” in the news headline “Stunning but strange, Donaire wins title fight,” which actually succeeds in effecting the modification, albeit in a wrongheaded way. What we have this time is a total failure to modify.

Formally, a modifier that totally fails to modify is called a dangling modifier. It’s usually a phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, and is often—but not always—located at the beginning of a sentence. Usually functioning as an adjective, which is what the participial phrase does in this case, it is unable to clearly modify a particular subject in the sentence. In contrast, a misplaced modifier is a word or group of words positioned or attached to the sentence in the wrong place, or isn’t placed near enough to the word it’s supposed to modify, thus ending up modifying the wrong word. In short, the modification is actually but wrongly consummated.

In your follow-through posting above, you presented one more seriously flawed sentence construction, this time from the companion weekly magazine of a leading Philippine broadsheet. It reads as follows: “Being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo, people expect me to know much about this house which was built in 1845 by my great great grandparents, Trinidad Valerio Famy and Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo, a former gobernadorcillo of the town of Kawit.”

You classified the frontline participial phrase “being a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Emilio F. Aguinaldo” as a dangling modifier, but based on the preceding discussion, I must say that it’s actually a misplaced modifier. This is because that participial phrase suceeeds in effecting the modification of the main clause, even if in a faulty way because of the subject-verb disagreement between the singular “descendant” and the plural “people.”

Having said that, Gerry, I now join you in inviting readers to do the exercise of rewriting that sentence to get rid of that misplaced modifier. Forum members are welcome to post their rewrites in this board for open discussion.