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.


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.

March 30, 2015

You and Me Against the World

Filed under: grammar,language degenerating — amba12 @ 10:53 am

Great song, especially as sung by Freddy Cole.* Lousy grammar. But so is this, from a new science article:

Germline alterations are therefore permanent, as opposed to changes made to “somatic” cells—the cells in you and I that are generated after conception and are not passed on to our children.

And this, from a wedding invitation:

It’s so heartening to think that you could be joining George and I for our wedding on the 4th of July.

I don’t know what has caused the plague of this — a dislike of the word “me” perhaps (me, me, me! it’s all about me!) — but a plague it is. The rule to know when to say “you and I” and when to say “George and me” is simple. A pair of pronouns are both operated on identically by the verb preceding them. So the science writer above is saying “the cells in I,” and the blushing bride-to-be is saying (if we can bear to separate her from her intended for a moment), “you could be joining I for [my] wedding.” None of us would ever intentionally say that. Don’t tell me that “you and I” is becoming a fused grammatical unit that overrides the fact that the dative and accusative of “I” (that is, when it is an indirect object — “give I a call tomorrow” — or a direct object — “call I tomorrow”) is … you got it …



*click the > sample arrow for a taste. You may want to buy the song! I was driving around Chapel Hill a few years after J’s death when I heard it on the radio. It stopped me in my tracks.

February 13, 2015

Usage Finds of the Day

Filed under: Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:31 am

“Putin did, however, claim that he had pressurized the separatists to sign the agreement.”

~ David Patrikarakos on The Daily Beast

To sea level, I presume?

UPDATE: Followed in short order by this Daily Beast headline:

Scandalized Oregon Governor Resigns

It’s “IZE”day!

August 14, 2014

The Grammar GPS

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 5:12 pm

Here I’d been describing grammar as train tracks for the brain — brain tracks — and accordingly, describing what happens in the case of bad grammar, particularly grammatical ambiguity (where you come to a fork in the track or stray down the blind spur of a misreading), as a derailing.

How 19th century of me! Obviously, it’s time I got with the program. The grammar part of your brain is a GPS, and a bad writer is a bad driver. When he or she gets you lost, you can just hear your brain draw itself up and say in that icy, nasal voice, dripping with contempt and barely controlled patience, “RECALCULATING.”

May 1, 2014

Fossil Mixed Metaphors

Most high-flown abstract words started life as physical, material metaphors, colorful analogies between actions of the body and actions of the mind. (To “deliberate” is to weigh.) The root words for those physical actions still lie buried inside their abstract descendants. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

The example I’m looking at right now is “precipitated a quagmire.” You can’t do that, somehow.

“Quagmire,” like most Anglo-Saxon words, is a much “younger” abstraction than the Latinate “precipitate.” That is, you can still hear the metaphor loud and clear. A “quagmire” is barely one step removed from a quaking bog in which you would “bog down” (heh) and flounder: a slower sort of quicksand. In Latinate words, on the other hand, the physical root is hidden and forgotten, unless you take an obsessive kind of interest in these things. “Precipitate” is, thanks to the indispensible Online Etymology Dictionary, “from Latin praecipitatus, past participle of praecipitare ‘to throw or dive headlong,’ from praeceps ‘steep, headlong, headfirst’ (see precipice). Meaning ‘to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of’ is recorded from 1620s. Chemical sense is from 1620s; meteorological sense first attested 1863.”

Look at the layers of metaphor in that abstraction! It’s a thing of beauty, like a first-rate geological dig site. It goes back to “prae-ceps,” “first-head,” and a precipice is something you fall off headfirst. It’s interesting too that the chemical sense and the metaphorical sense (“to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of”) date to the same time. What is the physical action behind that metaphorical sense of the word? Is it the chemical meaning — when a solid suddenly forms out of a solution — or is it getting something rolling by pitching it downhill?


February 18, 2014

Typo Humor

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 1:07 pm

Find it here.

From The Onion’s horoscopes for the week of February 18, 2014:

An error in last week’s horoscope has probably resulted in you having a chance midnight encounter with a tall dark strangler. The stars regret any inconvenience.

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