Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The dangler at play

Quick, grammar fans: who went out to the polls on Saturday?

In my old age, I've come to find kindly Professor Pullum's case fairly convincing: when good writers routinely use some construction that seems not to confuse competent readers in many cases, it's hard to say the construction is an error in all cases. Thus, he counts many danglers as faults of etiquette more than grammar. But others cause a bit more disquiet, and still others are -- well, what exactly got into the water out there in the major U.S. media at the weekend?

The Times checked in with this on Sunday (14A in the national):

The death toll in the restive region of Kashmir continued to rise on Saturday, with at least three more protesters being killed, including reports of security officers firing on a crowd that had defied the curfew to march in the funeral procession of a young boy.

And MSNBC, on one of the mystery now-you-see-it stories of the month:

According to the officials, after shooting the two women at a "shoppette" a convenience store in a small shopping center, Army civilian security guards ordered the suspect to put down his weapon. The suspect apparently refused and got into a car when the guards shot and killed him.

These flirt with discourtesy at least, and a couple of them go beyond disquiet. I'm inclined to read "going to the polls" differently from "going out to the polls"; the first is the standard news-writing term, but the second sounds to me more like what a big visitor from outside would do. So even if Gen. Petraeus was a toss-up, that would bias me toward thinking it was hehim. But he doesn't show up until the 35th graf of the AP tale Fox used, and there's no indication in his one appearance that he went out.

The NYT example is perhaps closest to the classic dangler, rather than the misattached or squinting variety. If there had been other reports in the lede, that'd be different, but these are concrete events: a death toll rising and people being killed, so I'm not sure where to put "reports."

In the MSNBC case, the easiest meaning is exactly what it seems: the guards shot the two women, then ordered the suspect to surrender. With the context that the story provides, it's not a problem. The perp is the one who did the shooting. But what's the point of misleading me?

Every now and then at the outset of the semester, I wonder about moving the strict dangling-participle rule into the optional category. Based on this, I think we ought to keep teaching it. The line between discourtesy, disquiet and outright goofiness is a bit too blurry.

OFF TOPIC: Do spare a kind thought for Language Czarina, who as of midafternoon Wednesday had officially endured 25 years of marriage to Your Editor yet seems to be bearing up pretty well.

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Anonymous Ed Latham said...

I agree. News writing, more than any other kind of literary endeavour, has to say exactly what it means. That MSNBC sentence isn't ambiguous or confusing - it unambiguously says the wrong thing, and clearly identifies the guards as the people who shot the women. There's only so much genuflecting to the descriptivists you can do before you start libelling people.

1:34 PM, September 26, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mostly for structural reasons, I found this blog post difficult to follow. One issue that made me scratch my head for a while is that immediately after quoting from the Times and MSNBC, your next comment unexpectedly refers to the quotation at the top of the page.

I think this is at least as much a fault of etiquette as any dangler...

1:39 AM, September 27, 2010  

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