Where Words Go, What They Say…

Ever noticed that certain words and phrases change a sentence’s meaning as much by where they appear as by what the words themselves mean? Today’s case in point: The august New York Times tells us, concerning the recent attempted mass murder on a European high-speed train:

The assault was described as a terrorist attack by the Belgian prime minister…

Those darned Belgian prime ministers!

Obviously, the prime minister of Belgium did not take after a bunch of European tourists and commuters with his streetsweeper. But the misplaced modifier creates an effect that’s arresting enough to break the reader’s attention, even if briefly. Distracting readers from our story is not what we, as writers, want to accomplish.

If we were a New York Times editor, what could we do to fix this?

Well, the obvious fix is to get rid of the passive voice (another journalistic misdemeanor, BTW):

The Belgian prime minister described the assault as a terrorist attack…

Possibly the reporter wished not to lay the blame for a premature rush to judgment on Monsieur Michel and so tried to hide him at the far end of a passive construction. A paragraph later, we learn that “French officials were refusing to characterize the episode as terrorism….” Pulling these together, we might try something  like this:

Although French officials refused to characterize the episode as terrorism, the Belgian government described it as a terrorist attack.

Mealy-mouthed, but at least it doesn’t turn the prime minister of Belgium into a terrorist fanatic, nor does it draw attention to him specifically as jumping to a conclusion about the gunman.

In English, meaning is largely determined by word order. Even though native speakers intuit this basic fact, all of us commit the word order misdemeanor now and again. It’s just so easy! All those loose adverbs and participial phrases rattling around, like so many billiard balls shooting across a pool table after a break.

Consider the word only, for example. Where you choose to place it in an utterance subtly determines your meaning:

Only he said he dented the fender. [No one else said that.]
He only said he dented the fender. [He said nothing more than that.]
He said only he dented the fender. [No one else did it.]
He said he only dented the fender. [That was all he did.]
He said he dented only the fender. [Nothing else was damaged.]

A dangling modifier (a phrase or clause that doesn’t logically relate to the main part of the sentence) can create some unintentionally funny effects.

Walking on the ceiling, he noticed a very large insect.

Although our hero might have been walking on the ceiling (if he’s Spiderman), it’s not likely.  This makes better sense:

He noticed a very large insect walking on the ceiling.

What’s the take-away message here? Because English relies on word order for meaning, place modifiers as close as possible to the word or phrase they refer to. 



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