Sunday, April 05, 2015

Words Need to Find Their Place, Part 1

Words and phrases in the wrong place can create unintended meaning, which can cause laughter at best but a potential lawsuit at worst. Grammarians call this problem dangling or misplaced modifiers.

Consider this example of a misplaced word: In my office, more men wear earrings than women. Are you picturing the bizarre image of some men wearing women around the office? The sentence makes more sense this way: In my office, more men than women wear earrings.

But sometimes the image is not comical at all and can lead to a litigious situation. Take this case from a municipal government manager's test: Jim was cautioned for not sweeping the corridors on several occasions. In a progressive disciplinary context, he should receive:
A. a verbal warning
B. a written warning
C. a formal probationary notice
D. a termination notice

The tester wanted the choice of B, believing that the employee was cautioned on several occasions, but the sentence says that he was cautioned only once for not sweeping the corridors more than once. Someone who noticed the flawed thinking in the test question, and who failed the test by one point, successfully filed a grievance, exposing either the linguistic ineptness or editorial laziness of the tester.

The point is simple: the position of words in a sentence can make a big difference in the intended meaning. More about this in the next three posts.