Order of the day

Yeah, I'm just as confused as the pilot ... and more than a little worried that he needs to read the manual at this stage. Image found on pixshark.

Yeah, I’m just as confused as the pilot … and more than a little worried that he needs to read the manual at this stage.
Image found on pixshark.

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).

Listen to Grumpy Cat, people ... or at least make sure your cat's not reading crap. Image found on imgsoup.

Listen to Grumpy Cat, people … or at least make sure your cat’s not reading crap.
Image found on imgsoup.

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.

See? Creepy ... but that was kind of the point of this Quebec auto insurance ploy. Image found on BecausEXM.

See? Creepy … but that was kind of the point of this Quebec auto insurance ploy.
Image found on BecausEXM.

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.

I didn't even know motorcycles HAD legs ... Image found on MyFunnyQuotes.

I didn’t even know motorcycles HAD legs …
Image found on MyFunnyQuotes.

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” …

Now I'm wondering if the mutants are like the ones in Total Recall ... Image found on I Know What I Know.

Now I’m wondering if the mutants are like the ones in Total Recall
Image found on I Know What I Know.

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.”

Perhaps this Russian orthodox cemetery might be one of those prolific graveyards. Photo by Alan Grant found on Art Nectar.

Perhaps this Russian orthodox cemetery might be one of those prolific graveyards.
Photo by Alan Grant found on Art Nectar.

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

Little Rock

Let me be clear: If anyone believes Limbaugh is more accurate or gauges accuracy by partisan alliance, I would strongly suggest therapy.

If you're hoping for Rushbo's failure, keep hope alive. His advertisers aren't. Cartoon by Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

If you’re hoping for Rushbo’s failure, keep hope alive. The odds look better every day.
Cartoon by Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

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.

Yes, even Rachel Maddow is fallible, as we all are. Image found on The Fifth Column.

Yes, even Rachel Maddow is fallible, as we all are.
Image found on The Fifth Column.

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 …

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “Order of the day

  1. You knocked it out of the park with today’s and last week’s columns. Dangling modifiers and fact checking are issues dear to my heart. Rescuing dangling modifiers is a mission that I take very seriously when I edit. Funny story—I was editing a story for a UALR publication, and I changed the phrase, “…talk shit through,” to “talk through shit.” Although this is not an example of a dangling modifier, my professor and I laughed hysterically when he pointed out my over correction.

    I was glad to see you addressed the person who wrote the letter asking for you to give an example of Rachel Maddow being “less than honest.” I was ready to come to your defense with a scathing letter to the person who would dare question your credibility. I do feel a letter to the editor pulsing through my veins, so if I can get my “duck butts” in a row, I may still write my letter, but I’ll be less scathing.

    This summer I’m a documentation analyst intern at Blue Cross, and I’m in week two of working 40 hours a week. I have not worked full time in 21 years, so my stamina is not quite what it used to be. So far my take away is two days is too short for a weekend. I love the work and the people, and I’m sure I will build up the necessary stamina to crank out a letter to the editor in the next day or so.

    Keep up the good fight and continue to rescue those dangling modifiers. It’s a funny job, but someone’s got to do it.

    Like

    • 😀

      On the hard copy of the letter, I wrote “Are ya sure?” by his demand that I produce evidence that she’s ever misspoke. What little I’ve seen of her (I don’t have cable) I’ve mostly liked, but nobody’s perfect (certainly not me), and she seems to get a little bit too defensive and worked up about fact-checking sometimes. And please, write a letter … and if you work in persnickety and duck butts, there might be some chocolate in it for ya! 😉

      The 40-hour thing is definitely a drag, especially if there aren’t that many funny dangling modifiers to deal with (I don’t have that problem, luckily). One writer in particular seems to think not only that he’s paid by the word but also that inanimate objects (a photo, a bottle of port) are watching him.
      😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I can include persnickety and duck butts in my letter. Challenge accepted!

        I’ve never watched Rachel Maddow, mainly because I tend not to watch the news or news talk shows. Now that I’m gainfully employed for 8 1/2 more weeks, I can’t even keep up with Twitter.

        So far I haven’t found funny modifiers at my job. I’d love to read some of the letters you get, but I’d probably end up curled up in a little ball under my desk after a few days (a bottle of port???).

        Thanks for making me laugh out loud every week.

        Like

      • MWAHAHAHAHA!

        I don’t really see the attraction in a lot of those shows, especially the ones that are meant to appeal only to the like-minded. I’d much rather just watch Jon Stewart on Hulu; at least he’s intentionally funny! 😀

        And now I’m about to head to bed … there’s a big, furry lump there right now …

        Like

  2. p.s. My I share a link to your blog post on Facebook? I bet that will get you some followers in Texas, California, and possibly the UK (not to country drop or anything). Also, did you get a chance to visit your mom?

    Like

    • You may indeed!

      I still haven’t had a chance to see Mom, or even to take a day off for something other than a doctor’s appointment. Hopefully I’ll see her soon, though.

      Like

      • 😀

        Luke doesn’t really like traveling too much, but he loves his grandma … he usually settles down as soon as he realizes we’re heading there instead of the vet. 😉

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s