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."