Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dangling, Squinting, and Straining

Sharon Wildwind

Have you seen that TV commercial where a person hits herself on the forehead when she realizes that she could have chosen something better to drink? That’s what I felt like last week. I was reading through my work in progress, and I found too many examples of modifiers that I’d misplaced, dangled, or squinted at. In other words, they had no business being where they were in sentences.

As in real estate, location matters in grammar. The basic noun/modifier rule is that the modifier sticks like a magnet to the noun or pronoun closest to it. Move the modifier, and you change the meaning of the sentence.

Only, he was my cousin.
[So I didn’t want to do the bozo a favor, but family is family, right?”]

He only was my cousin.
[There were three men over there. One was my cousin.]

He was only my cousin.
[Like, I mean it wasn’t as if he were a brother or someone important.] This one is tricky. Only is half way between He and cousin, but in the grammar game nouns are stronger magnets than pronouns, so cousin wins the use of the modifier.

He was my only cousin.
[I have loads of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, etc., but only one cousin.]

Some modifiers dangle, or are asked to do six impossible things before breakfast. This happens because they’ve failed to practice safe grammar. There’s something missing in the sentence.

A balloon tied to her wrist kept track of Judy at the party. [Hmm, I wonder how much the balloon charges an hour for baby-sitting?]

Who tied the balloon to Judy’s wrist? Her grandmother? Put Gram in the sentence: Judy’s grandmother tied a balloon to her wrist so we could keep track of her at the party.

Wait a minute, who are we keeping track of here, Judy or her grandmother? This is what’s known as a squinting modifier. Squint at the sentence one way an it means one thing; squint at it from another direction and the meaning can be very different.

Let’s have another go at it:
Gram tied a balloon to Judy’s wrist so we could keep track of the child during the party.

How about this one? Being worth five thousand dollars, the insurance company demanded a premium that would put me on peanut butter and generic canned goods a couple of days a month. [Would you do business with an insurance company worth only five thousand dollars?]

What is worth five thousand dollars? A necklace? Okay, the necklace belongs in the sentence.
The necklace was worth five thousand dollars; the insurance company demanded a premium that would put me on peanut butter and generic canned goods a couple of days a month. In the end, I walked out of the office with a policy.

We’ve cleared up the dangling modifier, but we’ve got another problem in the last sentence. Around our house it’s known as a Vonda.

Years ago, a student is supposed to have read a work in progress in a class taught by the science fiction writer Vonda N. McIntyre. In that reading was the sentence, “She strained her eyes through the view screen.” To which Ms. McIntyre is reported to have replied, “Yuck!”

The trend hasn’t died out. Just last week, I read in a book where a reputable, well-published, award-winning writer wrote, “I would have rolled my eyes at him, but they were glued to the map in front of me.”

I really, really hope the writer did that intentionally as humor, because if she did, it was rolling-on-the-floor funny. If it wasn’t intentional—well, even Homer nodded—and it was still funny.

Eyes do not sweep a room or fall to the floor or get glued to maps: gazes do.

Someone doesn’t hear feet behind them in a dark alley: he hears footsteps.

A person does not walk out of an insurance office with a policy, unless we want to imagine a folded legal document going out the door hand-in-hand with the insured: In the end I walked out of the office with a policy in my hand [or purse, or pocket, or some other method of conveying the piece of paper.]

This is one of those do as I say, not do as I do moments. Excuse me while I get back to my WIP and see what else I can find wrong with it.

Writing quote for the week:

Not only does the English Language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.
~This quote is attributed to a man named Eddy Peters, but no one seems to have a clue who he is or was


Darlene Ryan said...

Sharon, I have some old manuscripts that need to go through the shredder. There are so many rolling eyeballs I could field a bowling team.

Dana King said...

All true, but...

Depending on the voice of the story--or whether the passage in question is dialog--the author may have to come up with a construction that is still clear, but not wholly grammatical.

Anonymous said...

Darlene, never shred. Use your global replace and put "gaze" in place of those eyeballs, and get those manuscripts spruced up and out there looking for homes.
Dana, that raises an interesting question. If the grammar isn't correct, can the meaning be clear? I suspect clever authors can pull that off just fine.

Dana King said...

Your point is well taken, but it can be done. Elmore Leonard is a prime example, as are Ken Bruen and James Ellroy. I do think newer, less proficient writers would do well do be sure they have the chops to do this before they wander too far astray of traditional grammar.

Sandra Parshall said...

"Being worth five thousand dollars, the insurance company demanded a premium..."

This sort of thing drives me NUTS, and I see it all the time in published books by well-known writers who ought to have more sense (or better editors). I'm not as bothered by the eyes/gaze thing, because I figure if the meaning is clear, that's what matters most.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Dana.

Sandra, my husband and find stuff like this the most in headlines, which makes for some screamingly funny impressions left by those headlines.