Tuesday, 24 May 2011


For my next foray into the mistakes writers sometimes make, I'm moving away from vocabulary to syntax, and one of my favourite errors. Whether you're a pedant or a progressive when it comes to changing meanings, please allow that I'm right on this one.

These are sometimes called hanging participles but since a) the people who make the mistake probably don't know what participles are and b) some of them aren't participles, I call them misaligned subjects.

Here is my favourite example, which I heard on a BBC television report many years ago when the Queen visited some ancient ruins in Jordan.
Two and a half thousand years old, the Queen seemed to enjoy her visit to the ancient city of Petra.
I think you see the problem. The queen is a ripe old age, but not as old as that... In terms of syntax, what has happened is that the first phrase has no subject and therefore must borrow the subject of the main verb ("seemed to enjoy").

Equally wrong would be this rephrasing to include a participle:
Dating back two and a half thousand years, the queen seemed to enjoy the ancient ruins at Petra.
No, you need to rephrase completely. For example:
The queen seemed to anjoy the ancient ruins at Petra, which date back two and a half thousand years. 
The queen seemed to enjoy the two and a half thousand year old ruins at Petra. (Except I frankly get a bit boggled by hyphens and can't decide where to put them. Anyway, it really doesn't sound nice, does it?)
It's this type of thing which old-fashioned grammar teaching gives us. It's not about rule-following. It's just about the ability to say exactly what you mean to say and what you think you are saying.


Neil said...

Hi Nicola

I find this extremely annoying, as well.

My local radio news introduces itself with "wet and windy (or whatever the day's weather) at twelve, I'm...."

It used to make me laugh, but I also find it amazing that a journalist would be so sloppy with their English.

I'm sure everyone will have their own version of this.

Sarah Billington said...

Hehe. These make me giggle.

Julie P said...

Hi, Nicola

Great post. It's so important to make sure that we use the right punctuation in the right place isn't it. Otherwise we run the risk of confusing our readers, as your examples demonstrate perfectly.


Anonymous said...

Good post on something I, too, see an awful lot of. It's a combination of the quest for (not so) elegant variation, and the journalistic habit for front-loading sentences.

I've never known what to call them, when they're not participles but it's basically the same mistake - so Misaligned Subjects it is (even if it does make me think of the Queen surveying a particularly wobbly row of curtseyers...)

My favourite aide-memoire, once told by an ancient English teacher and never forgotten: "Bubbling briskly, the witch stirred the eye of newt into the cauldron."

Scooter Carlyle said...

I tend toward misaligned subjects in my work emails, but I usually catch them in my stories. Comma splices, however...yikes. I'm the comma queen.

catdownunder said...

Yes ma-am. I suspect I am guilty of misaligned cat hairs. I try not to do it but - it happens.

widdershins said...

I reckon it's from people thinking too fast for their brains to send the signals to the fingers ... also, lazy editing.

Dan Holloway said...

back in the days when I used to tutor people for Oxford entrance, the General Paper for the entrance exam always had a subsection that was essentially about this issue. Someone would have immense fun writing down ambiguously formed sentences and candidiates had to write as many unambiguous sentences as they could find that could be construed from the one provided.

chillcat said...

So true! I like to think I have gone beyond some of these errors but a recent editing bout drove me nuts! I have a massive glossary of words with hyphens/joined/separated and still suffer doubts. Useful post, thank you, cat

DOT said...

On the subject of hyphens, there is an enlightening link at Ranting of a sub-editor. Here is a link to the post: http://rantingsubs.com/2011/05/11/style-guide-hyphens/

Oliver Lawrence said...

Like it! BTW, adverbs don't go between subjects and their verbs ("I frankly get..." > "Frankly, I get...") - see Strunk & White.

bookwitch said...

Insane and surrounded by bad advisors, I pity Erik XIV.

This was frequently used to teach little Swedes to get it right. It was the old king who was mad. Not us.
Though it loses something in translation.

Nicola Morgan said...

Oliver - "adverbs don't go between subjects and their verbs" - tosh! That is not about meaning but spurious and frankly (!) ignorant interpretation of the power of language. Rules are to empower, not restrict. Of course adverbs can go between subjects and their verbs. Adverbs very often need to. Otherwise, you'll get the horrible "hopefully" problem. Besides and more importantly, the style for a (my) blog is more colloquial than for a piece of more formal prose. Rules are for understanding and then dealing with, and sometimes breaking. Oh gosh, adverb between subject and verb again!

Nicola Morgan said...

Scooter - comma splices, gah! Mind you, Iris Murdoch used them. Mind you, that put me off her books.

Julie Nilson said...

This reminds me of that joke from the "Mary Poppins" movie: "I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith." I thought that was a hoot when I was 8.

Jesse Owen (Reading to Life) said...

lol, I actually laughed out loud reading those hehe :D