The Compulsive Copyeditor

April 25, 2015

Dangling Slowly in the Wind

All right, all right. I get the message:

Charged with involuntary manslaughter, a jury ultimately acquitted the film’s director, John Landis, of the charges.

It’s past time to tackle the issue of dangling participles, appositives, and what-have-you. The only reason I haven’t done it yet is that I actually don’t know the terminology. This is embarrassing and prevents me from being a certified expert. I live and breathe grammar, but I don’t really know what its parts are called. I can conjugate and decline with the best of them, but I can’t remember which is the operation you do on verbs and which on nouns. I know that a dangling participle is a phrase beginning with the -ed or -ing form of a verb that is not properly attached to the subject it’s meant to modify. But what’s a dangling appositive? Like the judge with the porn, I know it when I see it. I know it’s wrong, and I know why, but I don’t know it by name. I had to Google it. This is a dangling appositive:

A lawyer by training, her intelligence was keen, her commitment to health care reform and poverty unwavering.

Here’s another one:

Known for his sound character, military service, and political reforms, his passing came as a shock nationwide.

OK, millennials (my favorite straw man and woman, shorthand for the hapless victims of successive generations of progressive education, fading out like Xeroxes of Xeroxes), here’s a simple rule that will keep you from ever dangling a participle or an appositive again:

A participial or appositive phrase is like a baby duck: IT FOLLOWS THE FIRST THING IT SEES.

In the case of dangling participles, not knowing this rule often leads to unintentionally comical results, such as the above example of the jury charged with involuntary manslaughter, or yesterday’s example of the homeless men on their way to see Les Miz. The dangler simply attaches itself to the first thing it sees, like one of Konrad Lorenz‘s baby geese: [jeez, I had to copyedit the quote to make it fit for polite company!]

What he’s best known for and [what] led him to become internationally recognized was his classic experiment with newly hatched goslings (baby geese). For this experiment, Lorenz [divided] the eggs from the same goose into two randomly picked groups. Group A hatched in a natural environment and immediately began to follow mother goose around. Group B hatched in an incubator and the first living being they saw was Konrad Lorenz. So they immediately began to follow Mama Lorenz around… All the time.

In the case of the dangling appositive, the poor thing often has nothing to follow. The subject of the sentence has gone AWOL, and there’s no one to take its place. (In the above examples, you’d really have to work at the misreading “her intelligence was a lawyer by training” or “his passing was known for his sound character.”) The appositive just stands there, bewildered, like a teenager in a foreign train station, a follower without a leader and without marching orders. The grammar maven who provided the example also provides “one possible fix”:

A lawyer by training, she had a keen intelligence . . .

Or, in the second case,

Known for his sound character, military service, and political reforms, Beau Biden was mourned across a nation shocked by his passing.

In the opening example, the participial phrase can only be saved from the noose by a resort to the passive voice:

Charged with involuntary manslaughter, the film’s director, John Landis, was ultimately acquitted of the charges by a jury.

You might choose to rewrite those sentences differently But the point is, participial and appositive phrases both follow the very first thing they see when they turn the corner of the comma. So make sure it is what you want them to follow, the subject you intended them to describe. /sermon

April 24, 2015

Second Usage Find of the Same Day

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 8:48 pm

Is the collapse of Western civilization accelerating? I don’t even know what to call this:

We were the first group of kids who grew up with household computers, but still novel enough to elicit confusion and wonder.

The only thing I’ve ever seen to rival it was in a very long-ago Reader’s Digest, maybe as long ago as the late 1950s. They used to have collections of language mistakes that would leave me helpless with laughter. I’ve never forgotten this strike-slip fault of the mind:

He told me something one morning and out the other.

Usage Find of the Day

NEW YORK (PIX11) – Four Swedish police officers heading to a Broadway show found themselves in the middle of a New York City subway brawl, and decided to take a break from their vacation — stopping the fight and subduing both opponents.

While on their way to watch “Les Miserables,” two homeless men started fighting on an uptown 6 train in the middle of rush hour . . .

How appropriate that those homeless men were going to see “Les Miz”! They must have had to panhandle for months to buy the tickets, though.

April 14, 2015

Usage Find of the Day

Filed under: grammar,language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 7:59 pm

This is an almost endearing instance of millennial pathos:

You’re at the airport waiting to pass through security and board your flight. The security agent stops the person in line ahead of you: there was a full water bottle in his carry-on bag. He throws out the bottle and proceeds through the airport. Later that evening, you see that person’s face on the news, for having pulled out dynamite on their flight. Why did the TSA agent overlook the dynamite?

The writer has already made a choice to identify the gender of the offender: “he” threw out the water bottle in “his” carry-on bag. Yet the writer still feels obligated to go on and describe something this male person did on “their” flight.

Why??

What was it about this particular “his” that suddenly triggered the writer’s sexism-avoidance reflex when the earlier “he” and “his” did not? Or was it nothing so ideological, simply a belief that the correct third-person possessive is always “their”? But in either case, why didn’t “they” go back and change the other two instances? Whither consistency? Is this profound amnesia for the preceding sentence? Or just a visual culture’s assumption that language is some approximate wet sloppy stuff you throw handfuls of at content? Some generic substance you sell by weight?

April 1, 2015

She Got a Fast Car

Filed under: metaphors,shop talk — amba12 @ 10:19 pm

“It’s like those mechanics that only work on cars that go 200 miles an hour,” said David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor . . .

. . . about the work of the magazine’s formidable last-line-of-defense copy editors, the O.K.’ers. I can relate. When told I needed to jazz up my resume, I dared to describe myself as “Porsche mechanic of the English language.”

The metaphor seems irresistible. When I left my first job in New York — an editing job — and launched myself into the unknown of freelance writing, I explained my choice by saying, “I don’t want to be in the grease pit, I want to be on the track.” Forty years of writing later, I was taking care of a sick mate and didn’t have the uninterrupted concentration necessary to write. I returned to the grease pit and discovered that the two jobs no longer seemed mutually exclusive. Rather, they enhanced each other. I’ll expand on how they enhance each other some other time. But one of the ways surely is the fun of writing about copyediting.

I particularly love that Mary Norris is an advanced enough copy editor to elevate her ear above the rules, scanning keenly for

technically correct commas that might make a sentence sound better if omitted . . .

The New Yorker is fond of commas. “We get a lot of letters from people who think we use too many commas,” Ms. Norris said. In the book she uses an example of what she calls “a discretionary comma” in the following sentence: “It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective.”

In such cases, “I always think: ‘The writer likes that comma. That comma is doing something,’ ” she said. “And sometimes I take it out, and sometimes I leave it in.”

Me too.

This level of savoir faire, of discrimination, of delectation, is delectable. To switch metaphors (I know, it’s a no-no), you have to have a palate for it.

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