An email from a friend and frequent correspondent last week reminded me just how important word order is.
While the subject matter (the Duggar mess) was very serious, the headline Slate gave to the story about the Megyn Kelly interview was, unfortunately, hard to get past: “Parents say Josh Duggar molested four sisters in Fox News interview.”
Yep, you’re right—Slate reeeeally should have put “In Fox News interview” first; otherwise, that strikes me as must-flee television, possibly with an NC-17 rating. And yes, I did laugh … schadenfreude does that to me (as does the fact that, as a journalist, I have a morbid sense of humor).
Misplaced modifiers such as that are unfortunately far too common, especially in today’s media circus. A lot of the time, they’re hilarious; other times … cringe-worthy (that Slate headline was both). I find myself re-ordering sentences several times a week (after I stop laughing) to avoid having a descriptor too far away from what it modifies. And yes, sometimes I have to do that to my own writing since dangling or misplaced modifying clauses or limiting words can be laugh-inducing … and not the good kind of laughter.
Constance Hale of the Sin and Syntax blog highlighted several dangling modifiers in a reader contest in 2012, and one entry in particular jumped out at me (almost literally): “Walking past the cemetery, an open coffin frightened me.”
Word order really can completely change the meaning of a sentence, and sometimes give life to inanimate objects; while that may work out well for Disney (or Victor Frankenstein … or Tim Burton …), an epidemic of walking coffins is not something I want to see. Even animated, that would just be too creepy.
Often the effect of a clause or even just a word being in the wrong place is funny—such as Groucho Marx’s “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”—but sometimes, it’s just painful … especially if you’re the one who wrote the offending passage.
Pity the writer of the Reuters story with this line: “An Afghan policeman shot dead taxi driver Mohammad Jawid Amiri six months ago, for no apparent reason.” The reason that sentence is wrong is readily apparent … unless the taxi driver was already dead at the time of the shooting … and that’s a whole other can of worms.
Rob Kyff found another one that really paints a picture … perhaps of Caitlyn Jenner: “Wearing an antique wedding gown with a lacy, low-cut bodice, her father escorted her down the aisle.”
This one-sentence synopsis of the movie The Hills Have Eyes II suffers from guffaw-inducing misplacement: “A group of National Guard trainees find themselves battling against a vicious group of mutants on their last day of training in the desert.” I wasn’t aware that mutants train, but okay … and I’m suddenly having visions of “Thriller” …
Often the mistake is made because the writer tries to overcomplicate matters (especially those who consider themselves to be “literary” … or who believe they’re paid by the word); in that case, just shorten or otherwise simplify sentences, and remember to keep modifiers close to what they modify. For example, a sign at a Moscow hotel was reported to read: “You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian composers, artists, and writers are buried daily, except on Thursdays.”
So, so many jokes …
The sentence could be recast to make things clearer: “Except on Thursdays, you are welcome to visit the cemetery daily. Famous Russian composers, artists, and writers are buried there.”
Now let’s just hope the trained mutants don’t meet up with those Russians … though the score and choreography would probably be wonderful.
Back to last week’s column for a moment. Letter-writer C. Earl Ramsey has taken issue with what he sees as my implication that Rachel Maddow is no more accurate than Rush Limbaugh.
Her faulty judgment
I have, until now, enjoyed Brenda Looper’s writing, but her column of last week bothers me.
How can I completely trust an editor writing about facts and trust who seems to imply that Rachel Maddow is no more reliable or accurate than Rush Limbaugh? Looper wants writers to Voices to make explicit attributions to our “original source if it’s less than honest—if Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow said something that’s not necessarily true.”
When has Maddow been less than honest? I challenge Looper to cite instances when Maddow’s facts were wrong or when she distorted the truth.
The implication that Limbaugh is as reliable and accurate as Maddow is perverse. I believe that Looper’s comment was careless or that her judgment is faulty.
C. EARL RAMSEY
Let me be clear: If anyone believes Limbaugh is more accurate or gauges accuracy by partisan alliance, I would strongly suggest therapy.
If I did a content analysis (please don’t make me!) of fact-checkers’ verdicts on the two, I’m fairly sure that it wouldn’t reflect well on Rushbo. For instance, Maddow comes off much better than Limbaugh in PolitiFact’s findings, with only one “pants on fire” ruling (about mandatory transvaginal probes for abortion-seekers in Ohio’s budget) to Limbaugh’s eight. Of the 32 Limbaugh statements checked, only five (15%) were judged to be mostly or half-true; Maddow’s true/false distribution was virtually even in the 24 statements checked.
My intention was not to paint Maddow as equivalent to Limbaugh; I simply chose two diametrically opposed pundits that the “other side” always seems to view as the standard-bearer. (Had I not included a liberal of Maddow’s stature, you don’t want to know the crapstorm that would ensue.) Regardless of veracity or lack thereof, they are both seen as opinion leaders for their sides and, because of that, what they say spreads like kudzu.
No one, especially on television, is immune to hyperbole (I’m sure it’s required in some contracts) or saying something false, even unintentionally. In her 2012 book Drift, for example, Maddow said that, until Ronald Reagan, no modern president, even Dwight Eisenhower specifically, saluted military personnel. PolitiFact (with whom Maddow has a bit of an antagonistic relationship) found video evidence of at least seven salutes by Eisenhower. While Maddow was correct that Reagan made the salute commonplace among presidents, she was not in saying that Ike didn’t do it.
So, yes, even people who pride themselves on their facts can and do make mistakes. It’s the ones who can admit that fact that should be trusted more often.
Make of that what you will. And I’ll remind you that I’m responsible only for what I write, not what you understand.
Yep, I’m gonna get letters …