Thursday, July 25, 2013

True story about the author of a scholarly book

In order to preserve the anonymity of the author I'm rolling my eyes about, I'm changing the wording, I'm pretending the famous person in the story is Tony Shalhoub and the hotel is in Chicago, and I've chosen the genders of the author, of the person who got the phone call, and of Tony Shalhoub's factotum (for the purposes of the story) with the help of a 2007 Washington (The Evergreen State) quarter.

Anyhow, the author wrote

She answered the phone; the caller identified himself as Tony Shalhoub's factotum. She assumed it was a prank call. But then the man at the other end told her to be at the Palmer House Hilton, dressed "in her finest finery," at 6:30 PM.
I haven't changed the gist of this: that a caller identified himself as a celebrity's employee; and that she assumed it was a prank; "but then" the caller told her to be at a fancy hotel at a given time in her fanciest spruceage. My query (with possible change of gender) was
It sounds like you're saying that the fact that the voice gave her these instructions was enough to convince her that it wasn't a prank.
The author took heed. He changed "But then" to "And yet" and added "in Chicago" after the name of the hotel.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dangling modifiers

In "about me and this blog" (left margin), I say that because dangling modifiers are boring, I'm not going to write about them in this blog. This post is about dangling modifiers.

Here's what happens. Somebody writes something like "Walking to the bus stop, the sun shone bright." (And allow me to digress for just a moment. I correctly used bright as an adverb to annoy a former colleague who used to add -ly whenever she could, even if the word was better off without it. I don't know if she still does that (it was a long time ago), and I doubt that she reads this blog. It's a gesture.)

Anyhow, as I was saying, someone may write something like "Walking to the bus stop, the sun shone bright." If a member of the language police (LP) sees this, they may say something along the lines of "Presumably, the sun was wearing sensible shoes whilst it walked to the bus stop." (When someone uses "presumably," there's a rebuttable presumption that they're doing disingenuous tude.)

As far as I can tell, there are two objections to dangling modifiers. The first is that they're incorrect. But are they? They're idiomatic, and if something's idiomatic, one who claims that it's incorrect has a serious burden of proof.

The other is that they're ambiguous. To show the ambiguity, the LP typically give some sentences with dangling modifiers and pretend not to understand them.
"Walking to the bus stop, the sun shone bright." Presumably the sun was walking. But it's actually the walker (probably identifiable from the context) who was walking! See how ambiguous it is?

This is the almost invariant pattern. In this paradigm, the person who claims that the sentence is ambiguous knows what it really means. So where's the ambiguity?

Can a dangling modifier be ambiguous? Of course it can. So can just about any other grammatical construction, including those that the LP approve of. The solution is to avoid or correct the ambiguity, not to declare that the grammatical form is unacceptable. (This, by the way, is why I call incorrectness and the ambiguity two separate complaints instead of saying that ambiguity is the reason for the incorrectness.)

Having preached this sermon, you may be wondering what I do when a dangling modifier crosses my ms. editing desk at the scholarly publishing house (and I trust that all of you understand this sentence). Obviously, I de-dangle it (I don't say that I correct it, since I'm not convinced it's incorrect). If the meaning of the dangler were at all ambiguous, I wouldn't be able to make this adjustment. If the author asks about the change, I explain that it's a dangling modifier, that I have no objection to it, that many people do object to it and most publishers consider it unacceptable, and that some people will pretend that they think it means that the sun is walking to the bus stop.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

An ambiguous phrase, and my personal encounter with a zombie

More dismaying than my ignorance of zombie culture is the willfulness of that ignorance. Nevertheless, I was entranced when I noticed that Warm Bodies is the story of R (played by Nicholas Hoult), a young and ruggedly handsome zombie who falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a comely real live woman. I was entranced. It's the romantic in me. I had to read Michael Phillips's review in the February 1, 2013, Chicago Tribune.

So why am I spilling my (as it were) guts? Partly because that's what we do in blogs, and partly because I was giving you background for this ambiguous phrase from Phillips's review. To wit,

While hunting for zombies with her boyfriend and some other pretty people, Julie is saved from being eaten by R.
So what's happening here? Is R the one who was going to eat her, or the one who saved her from being eaten? The passive voice is OK by me, but the problem here is two passive verbs ("is saved" and "being eaten") and only one "by" phrase. Some sticklers might say it's obvious that we're talking about Julie's being eaten by R, but neither in the real world nor in movie reviews are people into sticklerage, and in the context of the review either one makes sense. I mean, whatever.

This being a blog, I'll share a personal anecdote. I was once confronted by a zombie. He cut my skull open and didn't find anything satisfactory, so he sewed it back up. He was disappointed, but gracious, and he had very good manners; he acknowledged it wasn't my fault. I directed him to my workplace (if you call it work). A few days later I got a handwritten smiley-faced thank-you note from him, with a PS that said "burp. lol."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not to mention Cousin Therefore and Uncle Unless

The problem with letting an algorithm choose the keywords for your article. This is from the end of Noam Scheiber, "The Partner," New Republic online edition, posted May 18, 2012 (although Scheiber probably had nothing to do with choosing these, which is the problem):
More Articles On: Bain Capital, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Barack Obama, Bob White, Don Evans, Florida, George W. Bush, Jim Rappaport, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, Ron Kaufman, the Olympics, Valerie Jarrett, Whereas Romney

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ownership, singularity, and frustration

The manuscript editor who works in an office full of other manuscript editors will sometimes get to read a professional newsletter that a colleague circulates. This is a questionable blessing (although for the scrupulous manuscript editor everything is questionable, so that isn't saying much).

Recently, I got to see such a bulletin that included a letter from the editor of some style guide or other (I no longer have a copy of the newsletter). He said he prefers farmers market to farmers' market. He had checked with an organization of such markets, and besides, the farmers generally don't own the market. They don't own the market? True, but what does that have to do with the grammatical possessive? Does this editor of a style manual really think that it implies ownership? On the same page is an article by an editor on her dealings with "her authors." Does anyone seriously think she's claiming ownership of these authors?

And why is farmer's market not considered as an alternative? Note the first paragraph of this post; it has two references to the grammatically singular manuscript editor. Did anyone think that it refers to only one manuscript editor? The grammatically singular farmer brings his or her produce to the market, where the grammatically singular city dweller may purchase it.

I don't know whether the author of that letter to the editor rejects farmer's market out of hand; if he does reject it, I don't know whether it's because he thinks the singular is in some way illogical. The letter was in response to something that had appeared in a previous issue of the newsletter, and I lack knowledge of that context. But there is at least one person who proudly announces her cluelessness about such constructions. Here are the last few sentences of the introduction to Lynne Truss's not-quite-completely-worthless Eats, Shoots & Leaves (p. 34):

The second [cartoon that Truss treasures] shows a bunch of vague, stupid-looking people standing outside a building, and behind them a big sign that says "Illiterates' Entrance". And do you want to know the awful truth? In the original drawing, it said, "Illiterate's Entrance", so I changed it. Painted correction fluid over the wrong apostrophe; inserted the right one. Yes, some of us were born to be punctuation vigilantes.
I don't care about the lack of a comma in "says 'Illiterates' Entrance'" and the presence of a comma in "said, 'Illiterate's Entrance'" (I mention it for the sake of my professional cred); there may be a rationale for it, and even if there isn't, I don't care about this stuff (although you sort of get the idea that zero-tolerance Truss does). And the periods and commas outside the quotation marks are British, and that's the style she uses. What I care about is that this person who would tell people how to write is so unaware of the subtleties of language (and this one isn't even that subtle). I care that Truss is so clueless as a human being that she embraces the concept of "stupid-looking" people, and that she isn't embarrassed about it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Possible poorly chosen exemplary quotation in the OED

A relative from the left coast was going to visit my greater metro area on the third coast and wrote to me that she was going to do some museuming, noting that there is no such word. Red meat has no appeal; this was a downright red lentil to me. Of course it's a word!, I protested; you wordified it by using it as a word. It matters not whether it's been dictionaried.

And then, just for the sake of completeness, I OED'd it. To my dismay, museum is listed as a verb. An intransitive verb, meaning to visit museums (n.). Here is one of the three exemplary quotations in the OED:

1899 H. James Let. 2 Apr. (1984) IV. 101, I breakfasted, dined, theatre'd, museumed, walked and talked them.
The them at the end suggests that all six verbs were being used transitively, which makes it a poor example of museum as an intransitive verb. I understand that the usages here may be eccentric, but that's irrelevant to my point (except that it may [or may not] mean that it isn't a good exemplary quotation for any purpose at all).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No comment

The publication date and time (Blogger lets you schedule in advance, and it's very nice), as well as the gender of the pronouns, were chosen pseudo-randomly, using a pseudo-random-number generator, so that nobody will assume this has anything to do with anything I'm working on now, which it doesn't.

Well, this author whose book I was working on back when I posted this mentioned some social problem of some decades ago that some then-contemporary pundit was stewing about. The author wrote that this was not just some straw person the solon was pummeling, and he gave as a case in point what happened to some people in a novel. Timidly, I queried whether it might be better to cite a (so to speak) nonfictitious example. He replied that he didn't have one.