Monday, February 22, 2010

The Dangling Participle

Here's a grammatical error that is so common these days, people don't think of it as an error.

This is a tweet I found on Twitter and it made be blink three times -- and feel confused.
While sitting on the couch, depressed, watching the #Comcast screensaver bounce around the screen, all of a sudden, the Olympics appeared!

If you scrutinize the wording, you find that it's possible to misunderstand what is being said. You feel certain you understand, and of course the perpetrator feels "Well, YOU know what I mean" -- but in reality this grammatical structure leaves you wide open to being misunderstood.

What happened in this sentence?

"While sitting on the couch, depressed, watching the #Comcast screensaver bounce around the screen -- "

That's the start of the sentence, the setup that leaves us waiting for a payoff.

What MUST come next is WHO was sitting, depressed, watching.

It can't be followed by what happened on the screen without that all important personal pronoun.

It has to say:

"While sitting on the couch, depressed, watching the #Comcast screensaver bounce around the screen, I SUDDENLY SAW THE OLYMPICS APPEAR.

or something like that)

If you leave out the bridge "I" did whatever after the "while sitting" -- you have changed the subject of the sentence in the middle of the sentence. Or you've created a sentence that isn't a complete sentence because it doesn't have a subject. Grammar allows for "implied" subjects and objects, true, but this isn't a case where "implied" can be invoked.

When you leave out the subject that must be there, in contexts other than this sentence about watching the TV screen suddenly change to the Olympics, you run the risk of a reader or listener assuming you mean one person when in fact you mean a different person.

Every sentence has to have a subject, (that's a part of speech, not the issue you're discussing), and you can't change the subject without actually saying you are changing the subject.

You can't assume the recipient is following your thought if you have not specified that thought. The interjection "you know" that peppers our speech with the accompanying hand-wave gesture, which basically invites telepathic divining of your thoughts or credits the listener with powers they don't have, does not work in cold text.

Grammar isn't something you learn in grammar school and then dismiss as unimportant.

The rules of grammar are not something made up in a stuffy historical period that is no longer relevant to today.

Grammar is the tool of communication that is powerful enough to bring down nations or build a new world.

OK, a tweet on twitter doesn't deserve that much emphasis, but the error turning up on twitter is in fact important because what you see repeated becomes your own habit.

If others do it, it must be OK. If tweeters do it who have professional writing credentials that gives the error the force of custom and law.

But the dangling participle isn't an error because it breaks a "law" -- it's an error because it misleads and mis-communicates.

True, most readers will "get it" and it really is OK. And yes, this one is truly trivial.

But oh how the whole world could benefit by tweaking this tiny detail!

If clean grammar is a habit, you will use it when you are angry, upset or terrified. And in that one moment, a split second that comes once in a lifetime, you will communicate accurately and save a life.

If you make it a habit to use grammar precisely, and others become accustomed to hearing that precision and relying on understanding exactly what is meant, then in that one split-second emergency that comes once in a lifetime, they will understand what is being said to them and react appropriately -- and save a life.

I believe this whole world is composed of very good people who strive mightily to do good in their lives. What causes our biggest, messiest problems is bad communications and misunderstandings.

We live in an internal, subjective world and strive with all our might to connect with that external objective world out there, and with the other people's subjective bubbles.

We make our worst mistakes assuming other people's subjective worlds are identical to our own.

If we all foster the precision use of language, the collateral damage from those mistakes can be minimized.

I believe the possible profit, the return, is far greater than the effort to master grammar.

Language, the spoken or texted word, is our most powerful tool for creating peace and prosperity, beauty and harmony in both subjective and objective realities.

So this tiny, trivial error leaps out at me and I cringe, not at a tweet about the Olympics but at what this error implies about our chances at world peace.

And yes, the Olympics is a commercial extravaganza, but really it is an exercise in creating world peace.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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