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I Wouldn't Dangle That Modifier If I Were You, Bud:
July 12, 2002 3:10 AM   Subscribe

I Wouldn't Dangle That Modifier If I Were You, Bud: The Grammar Mafia hits town - our town - laying into innocent bloggers; mercilessly gunning down the New York Times mandarins and generally making a bloody nuisance of themselves. They call themselves the Knucklerap gang. And yet one particular sentence has defeated them so far. Can MetaFilter's own Grammar Police come to the rescue?[Sentence inside]
posted by MiguelCardoso (58 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.
[Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Spectator, June 8, 2002]

Knucklerap confesses: This is a bad sentence. When knucklerap.com's editor figures out precisely why, she will let readers know. (She wouldn't want to make a mistake while scolding an English person).

It is a bad sentence - but why?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:16 AM on July 12, 2002


VTA, verb tense agreement. Should be
This allowed him to serve bravely in..and to witness...

The needlessly different verb tenses jar the sensibility.

am I first????
posted by planetkyoto at 3:22 AM on July 12, 2002


Seemed obvious to me...
posted by Su at 3:24 AM on July 12, 2002


It's a bad sentence because it took me two read-throughs to work out what he was trying to say. I think clarity is the key. If you keep things simple there's less chance you're going to run into trouble.
posted by Summer at 3:28 AM on July 12, 2002


Hmmm... on closer inspection of this participle phrase, I'm not sure it's so simple, either. How do I know "serving" is not a gerund??? damn my feeble brain. Maybe another expample...

Miguel gulped down the rye in one mouthful. This in turn allowed him, as well as facing down the crosseyed bull, to slay it mightily before his lady love.

"allowed him facing"?
"allowed him serving"?

has to be the infinitive "to".

Someone wanna slay me?
posted by planetkyoto at 3:32 AM on July 12, 2002


[new fad alert]: No no no no no no. The whole sentence needs rewriting, probably broken down into two. As it is it's overloaded and unfocused.

One problem lies here "the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out". Apart from Spring instead of spring - else the events spring like leopards.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:33 AM on July 12, 2002


Actually, Miguel, for some reason I don't understand, spring, summer, fall (autumn) and winter are not supposed to be capitalized, at least in American English.
posted by planetkyoto at 3:37 AM on July 12, 2002


Knucklerap are seducing the pedant inside me. Mmm, noun-verb agreement error. Sexy.
posted by stuporJIX at 3:42 AM on July 12, 2002


Ah, the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, how I hate them. But being a grammer wonk isn't all bad, you might write brilliant essays like this one.
posted by nedrichards at 3:45 AM on July 12, 2002


Planetkyoto: what about:
"Serving bravely in...allowed him to witness..."
or even:
"By serving bravely...he was able to witness."

Perhaps "allow" is the wrong verb. The sentence implies that he was allowed to witness something because he served bravely. I mean, there weren't any tickets being sold or a Studio 57-style red rope allowing people in when fighting broke out at the telephone exchange ;)

So it really should separate the two facts - that he served bravely - and that he witnessed the fight. I think...

[Btw, my "no no no no no" was solely directed at Su's "seemed obvious to me" remark. Indeed!]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:03 AM on July 12, 2002


This is how I'd rewrite it if I was subbing on The Spectator. Shoot me down, go on.

This meant that as well as serving on the Aragon front, he was able to witness the fighting around the telephone exchange in Barcelona that spring.

I've left out the bravery bit because it seems irrelevant.
posted by Summer at 4:15 AM on July 12, 2002


This, in turn, allowed him both to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front and to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

ugly, but i believe, grammatically ok. while preserving as much of the sense of the original as possible.
posted by juv3nal at 4:23 AM on July 12, 2002


wouldn't you freaking know it: the last line of my comment is all gimped grammatically. arg.
posted by juv3nal at 4:24 AM on July 12, 2002


Summer: well, that definitely sounds a lot more like wot George Orwell would of wrote it. Though "Barcelona that spring" at the end still seems strange. What spring?

My feeling is that there's something deeply wrong with the information he's trying to compress into one, lazy sentence. Wheatcroft is a good, knowledgeable writer but Private Eye are always going on about how "tired and emotional"(i.e. drunk)he often is. It seems to me this sentence was composed during one of these benders.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:28 AM on July 12, 2002


"This, in turn, allowed him to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, as well as to witness, that spring, the events in Barcelona when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange."

There are a couple of soft spots in the internal logic of the sentence that make fixing it any better difficult. For one thing, it seems unlikely that the person in question needed permission to be brave; the construction "allowed him to serve bravely" is going to sound strange without a context that justifies it. (Perhaps he had been heretofore required to serve timidly?)

For another thing, this sentence essentialy implies the workability of the clause "...the events when fighting broke out..." and it just doesn't work. To fix it, we risk altering the meaning, because it's not clear what the writer meant to begin with. Is he talking about events that took place within the fighting itself, or separate events that occured at the same time as the fighting, or events that occured during the same spring as the fighting? In fact, it's not even entirely clear that the telephone exchange is in Barcelona.
posted by bingo at 4:32 AM on July 12, 2002


You'd need to read the whole article before deciding how to deal with it I think.
posted by Summer at 4:43 AM on July 12, 2002


This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

Winston fighted Eurasia doubleplusgood and sighted and thoughtcrimed nothing.
posted by rory at 5:19 AM on July 12, 2002


"This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

This allowed him to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front and to witness events in Barcelona when fighting broke out that Spring around the telephone exchange.

Better: [something] allowed him to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front and, later that Spring, to witness the fighting that had broken out around the telephone exchange.
posted by Postroad at 5:43 AM on July 12, 2002


Nobody's mooted:

This, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, allowed him to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

With no real rewriting. It even flows much more nicely. The real problem is the soft passive spot in the middle. Let's get some context.

Fighting for the Spanish Republic was nevertheless a matter of choice and conviction for him (and it distinguished him from many of his tub-thumping enemies on the Left), but it was more like chance that took him not, along with most foreign volunteers, into the International Brigades and the defence of Madrid but into the militia of POUM, the revolutionary Marxist, ferociously anti-Soviet party led by Andres Nin in Catalonia.

This in turn allowed him to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, {but more memorably|but crucially} placed him in Barcelona that spring to witness the fighting that broke out around the telephone exchange.

Ah, Postroad's hitting close to my target. Fie!
posted by dhartung at 5:56 AM on July 12, 2002


It's a "run on" sentence. And, I agree, it would be clearer if it was turned into two. May I take a stab at it:

This in turn allowed him to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front. That spring he witnessed the events in Barcelona, when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

The only problem I had is with the original there and Barcelona. Are both necessary? If not, it makes a clearer sentence.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:22 AM on July 12, 2002


Is anyone else thinking what I'm thinking? I wonder what Thomcatspike is doing right now...

That in its turn has allowed that bravely it, like also the serving in the trenches on the front part of Aragon, testified the events to Barcelona that spring when they fight has burst around to the telephone exchange.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:34 AM on July 12, 2002


He served at the Aragon front—bravely, most said—and saw... everything. Around the telephone exchange, he witnessed the fighting... dear God, the fighting! The events that sprung from Barcelona that spring were hard on Blair; hard to bear.
posted by rory at 6:44 AM on July 12, 2002


Nobody's mooted:
This, as well as serving bravely in the trenches...

Buzz! It still sounds like "this" is serving, rather than him. Your second rewrite is a goos one, though I would remove the "bravely" altogether, as his membership in POUM did nothing to allow him to "serve bravely" as opposed to serving in a cowardly way; it simply allowed him to serve.
posted by transient at 6:50 AM on July 12, 2002


No, it doesn't qualify as a run-on, Taken. It's a poorly placed dependent clause that does not mar the sentence structure; and there are many longer sentences in the original piece, so Hemingwayesque brevity at this point would be jarring. I should also have included the following sentences, which make clear that the fighting near the telephone exchange was pretty damned important from a standpoint of Orwell's later ideological assailability. Clearly, this transitional sentence must bring the reader from the POUM and Nin directly to Barcelona as a natural, almost inevitable sequence.

transient: Sorry if you can't bear a delayed clause. Try it with dramatic pauses at the commas, as if on a podium. And in the context of the piece (read the link) "bravely" certainly qualifies; it's a review, which is commonly understood to be an opinion piece.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?


- Politics and the English Language
posted by dhartung at 6:55 AM on July 12, 2002


Franco I'ma kill you! You don't wanna telephone me
Stalin neither - you ain't nuttin but a fake homie
Franco I'ma kill you! You ain't got the balls to beef
We ain't gon' never stop at the Aragon front
You better kill me! I'ma be another POUM-a dead

-Eminorwell.
posted by rory at 6:57 AM on July 12, 2002


Wow. But before we can put Knucklerap right, some erudite member will have to explain what is gramatically (syntactically, I think)wrong with Wheatcroft's sentence. Rewriting it is easier than actually pointing to its error(s). Though why it's so difficult to rewrite should, theoretically, help to point in the right direction. Me, I've been mulling over it all morning and give up.

Fwiw, I think postroad's second rewrite is the best so far:

[something][this?] allowed him to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front and, later that Spring, to witness the fighting that had broken out around the telephone exchange.

Though all are much clearer and better written than the original sentence.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:58 AM on July 12, 2002


Rory - ha ha ha!

Still, my money's on clavdivs for a brilliant, Poundian rewrite with little superficial resemblance to the original, but going straight to the heart-meat, with lotsa soul juice on the side.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:02 AM on July 12, 2002


It doesn't matter if it's an opinion piece or not; "bravely" causes an unintended convolution of meaning. It's not as if he was able to serve, but only his belonging to POUM allowed him to do it bravely. See?
posted by transient at 7:11 AM on July 12, 2002


Taking a stab at the grammar, Miguel: it needs the insertion of 'that occurred' (or 'that happened') before 'when fighting broke out'; but grammar isn't his main problem. Apart from the needless use of 'the events ... when fighting' when 'the fighting' would do, he leads the reader astray with 'that spring', which looks at first like a verb ('the events ... that spring [into action? out of the box?]), rather than his intended meaning of 'spring of that year'.

A sentence can be perfectly grammatical and still need recasting.
posted by rory at 7:12 AM on July 12, 2002


box?]), box?]'),

;)
posted by rory at 7:14 AM on July 12, 2002


box?]), box?]'),

;)
posted by rory at 7:18 AM on July 12, 2002


Form I'ma kill you!
posted by rory at 7:21 AM on July 12, 2002


This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

Clearly the problem is all the typos:

This intern allowed him as, well, as serving brave lein in the trench, as on the Aragon front. To witness the eve -- and sin -- Barcelona! That spring, when fig hating broke out around the telephone exchange.

(Not that the original sentence made sense either.)
posted by mattpfeff at 7:29 AM on July 12, 2002


So much for banking on Mr.Editor himself to save the day. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:31 AM on July 12, 2002


So much for banking on Mr.Editor himself to save the day.

Ah, that is different. If you banked on it, it would be unkind of me not to come through -- for only a modest share of the kitty, of course.

Postroad has already provided a suitable rewrite that addresses the sentence's main flaws. The first is that the verb "allow" expects an infinitival verb form following it (___ allowed ___ to ___), not a gerundive one (allowed him, as well as serving bravely). If you wished to retain that sort of phrase structure, you could rewrite it, ... allowed him, not only to serve ... but (also) to witness ....

The other clumsiness lies in the combination of that spring and when fighting broke out, both describing the events; either one by itself would be fine, but the two together create confusion. If the fighting didn't break out that spring, for instance, the sentence is inconsistent; and if it did, it would be clearer to write, the events in Barcelona when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange that spring.

So, Miguel, just how much did you bank? :)
posted by mattpfeff at 7:55 AM on July 12, 2002


Right, the only grammatical problem with the original is that "allowed" requires the infinitive, so "serving" should be "to serve". But then "as well as" is clunky, and the commas are misplaced. I propose:

"This, in turn, allowed him not only to serve bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front but also to witness the events in Barcelona that spring, when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange."
posted by nicwolff at 8:06 AM on July 12, 2002


Heh, which is just what mattpfeff suggested while I was typing...
posted by nicwolff at 8:07 AM on July 12, 2002


(quickly fashions protective vest with gertrude stein novels.)

"Ya aint coming in shee. (blam-blam) Wont take me cogently kopper" (blam-blam)
posted by clavdivs at 8:11 AM on July 12, 2002


Ah, the masters awake.

Btw, an interesting myth laid to rest here, after Mr. Pfeff's and Mr Wolff's pronouncements, is the one that had postroad as a sloppy writer. Hmmm...

*engages his reconsideration machine*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:25 AM on July 12, 2002


The problem is that the conjunction "as well as" introduces a compound object phrase which is not parallel. Either both verbs ought to be gerunds, or both ought to be infinitives. Why the writer chose to structure the sentence this way when there are a number of far superior constructions that occur readily, is a mystery.

Apparently, writing skill is not the sine qua non of journalistic success that we might have hoped.
posted by vraxoin at 8:48 AM on July 12, 2002


Three cheers for Dhartung, who posted the context of the extract and made me delete the treatise I had crafted with a 20cm stack of books on the floor next to me. I had assumed wrongly about the writer's intent.

Rory's second rewrite (marked 6:44 a.m.) made me burst out laughing. Worth going back and reading it again if you missed it. Living in Scotland somehow imparts a magic touch, I think. My wife said that the weather there was beautiful or gray, cold and windy rain. Something about that that makes one turn inward, is it?

...that that... Reminds me of the 5-that sentence:
Two students look at the blackboard:
Today's Lesson: Relative Pronouns
"I have a friend that plays the French Horn."
One student turs to the other and asks:

Is that that "that" that that English teacher was talking about?
posted by planetkyoto at 8:48 AM on July 12, 2002


I'll go with bingo's rewrite, myself.
posted by rushmc at 8:52 AM on July 12, 2002


Is the fact that (at least) two people egregiously misspelled the word "grammar" in this thread supposed to be a subtle ironic self-mocking in-joke?

If so, am I ruining said joke by asking? Just wondering.

Dang, I didn't realize we had so many language pedants here...
posted by beth at 9:14 AM on July 12, 2002


The sentence doesn't get off the ground before heading off on a tangent with the 'as well as' clause. It loses force, loses direction. There's temporal confusion, because you begin with the idea of the sequential ('in turn') and go to parallelism ('as well as'). It wouldn't have left my desk looking like that. (Probably "to serve bravely... and then to witness", but I'd need to look at it properly.)
posted by riviera at 9:34 AM on July 12, 2002


copyeditors should just edit the copy and quit pretending that they're holier than thou just cuz they remember a few silly rules.

it is much more difficult to bust a rhyme than to place a period.
posted by tsarfan at 11:21 AM on July 12, 2002


Tsarfan - you have no idea how much writers and journalists (specially the good ones) depend on those editors you're pooh-pooing. Only inferior, jumped-up writers make a big song and dance about being subbed. Sure, some editors are indeed smug and rule-mad - but, in my experience, these also happen to be the best and the ones I feel most grateful for.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:32 AM on July 12, 2002


tsarfan: copyeditors should just edit the copy and quit pretending that they're holier than thou just cuz they remember a few silly rules.

MC: some editors are indeed smug and rule-mad - but, in my experience, these also happen to be the best and the ones I feel most grateful for.

It's weird. As both a sometime professional copy editor and as a writer, it always just seemed to me that, to be professional about it, both sides should simply recognize a copy editor's job as making those last checks and corrections. I've never known a single writer, editor or even proofreader to be completely infallible, and every good journalistic operation I know of builds redundancy into the editing process to take that into account.

Furthermore, a smart editor-in-chief wouldn't want his ace reporters or top editors worrying about making copy absolutely perfect. And a good copy editor, I always thought, would realize that a major part of his role is freeing up the writers and other editors to focus on the things they do best, just as those writers and editors should realize that their copy editor's having found what they didn't already catch is something to be grateful for, not (heavens forfend) ashamed or resentful of.

(As a side note, I never understand why people make a big deal of catching (or, heck, even bother to point out they've caught) mistakes on other people's writing, or having made them in their own. Such mistakes are regrettable only because they reduce a phrase's chances at being read as intended -- not because they somehow represent indelible flaws in a person's character.)
posted by mattpfeff at 12:35 PM on July 12, 2002


it is much more difficult to bust a rhyme than to place a period.

one might have thought
but apparently not
posted by rushmc at 12:59 PM on July 12, 2002


Is that that "that" that that English teacher was talking about?

I just went insane.
posted by nath at 2:25 PM on July 12, 2002


Sorry, transient, I disagree. The service was allowed, but Orwell's individual choices made that service brave. It's not an unimportant editorial thing, either, because it tells us he saw real action (in a war known brutal), and that save history's intervention in Barcelona, that alone might have been the high point. I don't believe it confuses anybody -- as you suggest, how could an abstract thing cause him to be brave? -- and ultimately I believe that communicating effectively is more than the collected rules of strict grammar. As Orwell says in rule 6 (see the essay!), break one of the above rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Consider a more concrete example: His mother didn't get home until late; this allowed him to roam recklessly about the neighborhood. See, the roaming was allowed, but we modified it to describe his individual behavior.

Too much of strict English grammar is a result of 19th-century philologists trying to derive universal rules based on Latin and then saddling them awkwardly on heavily on English, e.g. the split infinitive rule. Historically, English has been much more flexible than those rules, and Shakespeare breaks them -- because he didn't know them! -- any number of times.
posted by dhartung at 3:31 PM on July 12, 2002


I sat through a powerpoint presentation yesterday detailing the 3 billion dollar network that my company just designed. One of three bullet points on a slide contained the following sentence:

'The server will be hosted at there site.'

Definitely an indelible flaw!
posted by goneill at 5:07 PM on July 12, 2002


MC:"you have no idea how much writers and journalists (specially the good ones) depend on those editors you're pooh-pooing. "

how the hell would you know?

in fact as a writer and a copy editor, i know plenty. i know that copy editors and writers each have their places and copy editors who act holier than thou look like a bunch of pompous asswipes.

in our lifetime there will be software to replace copy editors, but no amount of code can replace the creative process.

no real writer would shun a sincere editor who was truly interested in making the work more readable. and if they want to cross the t's and dot the i's while they're at it, fine. but for editors to come across as superior is ridiculous.

if my dictionary developed an attitude i'd toss it right in the fireplace. i imagine you'd do the same.
posted by tsarfan at 5:58 PM on July 12, 2002


This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

Just how close were those trenches on the Aragon front where he served so bravely to the Barcelona telephone exchange?
posted by semmi at 11:11 PM on July 12, 2002


Original sentence:

"This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange."

My comments:

"This in turn" sounds like a cliche. I say remove the "in turn".

"This allowed him to witness". Make it more active and change it to: "He witnessed", or "He saw".

Change "broke out" to "erupted". It's one less word and more forceful.

My version would be:

While serving at the Aragon front in the spring, he saw the events in Barcelona when fighting erupted around the telephone exchange.
posted by munger at 2:13 AM on July 13, 2002


Damn. I would have said what nicwolff said so in hopes of making a positive contribution I'll say this:

Sentences like

Jack, while Jill had had "had," had had "had had." "Had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.

are in reality not that interesting. A quoted word is not the same as the word itself. A much more interesting example is

The child the parents had had had had had no breakfast.

which can be understood if you realize
1) The child had been had by a surrogate mother.
2) This same child had had no breakfast
posted by vacapinta at 2:34 AM on July 13, 2002


This is a cool discussion, but reminds me why I never became a copy editor! Is it possible to be an author and a copy editor? I'm not sure. Both are full time jobs. -g
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:44 AM on July 13, 2002


Is it possible to be an author and a copy editor?

You can do both - freelance. Sometimes you get jobs that are half staff writer and half copy-editor (or sub-editor as we call them in the UK). I don't know what it's like in the US, but in the UK being a sub is more than just correcting grammar and checking facts. You have to be a Quark and Photoshop wizard who can lay out pages in super-quick time, you'll often need to extensively cut and rewrite copy, make sure house style is kept to, do all the headlines, standfirsts and captions etc, deal with the bastard lazy editors and writers and basically make sure the magazine is run properly. If you're a sub on a newspaper like the Sun you're far more valuable than a reporter.
posted by Summer at 9:52 AM on July 13, 2002


This in turn allowed him, as well as serving bravely in the trenches on the Aragon front, to witness the events in Barcelona that spring when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.

The quasi-passive voice, the lack of the infinitive for serve following allowed, and the clumsy placement of a dependent clause are what ruin this sentence. It muddies up the time factor, and it's hard to follow. I'd rewrite it:

This gave him him the opportunity to both serve in the trenches on the Aragon front, and later, to witness the events in Barcelona when fighting broke out around the telephone exchange.
posted by headspace at 10:11 AM on August 6, 2002


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