Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don't leave me dangling

Dangling modifiers -- you hear about these most often in jokes about what a copy editor does. "Oh, do you get a lot of satisfaction out of fixing comma splices and dangling modifiers?" (chortle, chortle)

Why, yes, I do, thank you very much.

I think the people who make these comments don't even know exactly what these sins are. (And they are sins, don't kid yourself.) Or they know what they are, but they don't think they're important.

Fools. (See, I can say that because if you're reading this, you obviously care and therefore are not a fool.)

A modifier is dangling if the subject it's modifying is missing, or just implied:

Having eaten dinner, the TV was turned on.

The modifier here is "having eaten dinner" and it's supposed to be modifying the person who has eaten dinner but, because of the passive voice (another severe offense), there is no explicit subject (person) named, so the modifier is left dangling -- or worse, it's modifying TV, which produces this meaning: The TV ate dinner and then was turned on. Hmmm ...

I think it's clear that the sentence should be recast to: Having eaten dinner, the person [or well-trained cat] turned on the TV.

A similar offense is the misplaced modifier: Flying around the room, I saw two moths.

Here, we have an explicit subject, "I," but it's misplaced, making the sentence actually say that the speaker is the one who was flying around the room, not the moths. So I guess this might be the case if Superman is the speaker, but otherwise, you would need to fix it by simply saying: I saw two moths flying around the room.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Home your language skills

Wait -- did that say home your language skills? Surely I meant hone your language skills, right?

Right. Hone means to sharpen, make more effective. You probably never see this mistake. But when you go the other way, you see it and hear it a lot: hone in on the target. It's supposed to be home in. Or at least that's how I learned it. Here's what Merriam-Webster.com has to say about it:

"The few commentators who have noticed hone in consider it to be a mistake for home in. It may have arisen from home in by the weakening of the \m\ sound to \n\ or may perhaps simply be due to the influence of hone. Though it seems to have established itself in American English (and mention in a British usage book suggests it is used in British English too), your use of it especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely."

And so here should begin a discussion about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism -- prescriptive dictionaries being those that tell you what's "right," and descriptive those that show you what is being used the most. If a word or phrase is being used a lot, even in what was originally considered an incorrect manner, it will appear in a descriptive dictionary because it's really a record of language as it's being used. It's hard to say what constitutes prescriptivism, since language always is, and needs to be, changing -- so who's to say what's right or wrong? When we declare, "It's in the dictionary, so it's right," we act as if it's the edict of some omniscient being. But if it shows up in the dictionary (as does, my 8-year-old likes to tell me, the word ain't), it's either the original form of the word, the popular form, a brand-new word, or sometimes all of the above.

That's why it's a good idea to read the full definition to get any usage notes that might be included, as the one above. For me, a language purist who seldom follows the crowd, it's still going to be home in. Or, better yet, zero in.