Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Misplaced modifiers

Well, by now we've all heard about the resignation of Representative Mark Foley (R-FL). Alarming as the story may be, there's also some alarm there from a linguistic point of view. I've heard several news announcers say that he resigned because it came out that he had sent inappropriate email "to a 16-year-old former male page."

What we have here is a misplaced modifier. The page is still male; "former" modifies "page". To avoid confusion, it would be better to write it as "to a male former [congressional] page."

In news related both linguistically and otherwise, the janitor of a school in White Plains, NY, has been arrested. It seems that he'd been stealing a lot of PC equipment from the school, and when the police went to his house to check things out they found, according to the local news, "thousands of pictures of children having sex on his computer." Appalling, indeed, that he let children use his computer that way. Only, they don't say where they found the pictures.

Yes, I hope readers understand that it should be something like, "On his computer they found thousands of pictures of children having sex." (Well, no, it should be, "On his computer they found pictures of flowers and scenery and cute, furry animals," but life isn't always as it should be.)

These made me recall one of favourite instances of an unclear antecedent. Back during Operation Desert Shield in 1990, there was a report that "an American was shot by Iraqi soldiers trying to leave the country." The soldiers, of course, were not trying to leave the country; the American was.

Yes, we understand all these statements when we think about them for a moment or two, but a good writer doesn't make his readers work that hard for no good reason. We understand some things only by context: we can say "he was shot in his leg," or "he was shot in his car," and we understand the difference and we don't demand a rewrite (such as "he was shot as he sat in his car"). Other things — such as the news items above — should be worded more carefully.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I actually interpret "former male page" as meaning, not that he has become female, but that "male page" is a job... and probably was supposed to be spelled "mail page".

Is "found pictures of children having sex on his computer" really going to be misinterpreted? I don't think so. " his house" is. " his briefcase" isn't. "...on his computer" is like the latter, for me: you have to work at getting the unintended meaning.

But in general, I agree with your conclusion. Placing modifiers in the correct place is important and often not done.

Barry Leiba said...

OK, I guess it's like Groucho's "I shot an elephant in my pajamas," thing. I did say that we do understand the statements as made... it's just that our parsers have to work a little harder on them.

Part of the problem is that if "they" get used to saying "...on his computer" because it's safe from misinterpretation, then the comfort with the construction is likely to result in " his house" in another story. Getting it right isn't hard, and getting used to getting it right is important.

Besides, it's fun to fool with the interpretations, isn't it? I like to say that one would have to be from Mars to misinterpret something that way... but that sometimes it's fun to be from Mars.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes, you're right - it's a bad habit to get into because it will cause you not to notice when you do write one that could by default have the wrong meaning.