Grammar and Motorcycles

rogersgeorge on February 14th, 2017

I happen to own a motorcycle, and I like motorcycling, so I guess that’s as good a reason as any to feature a motorcycle comic on Valentine’s Day. It was sent by my biker friend Jonathan Burt. I’m not sure where he got it.

The comic touches on a thought I’ve been meaning to post about for some time, but I’ve been waiting for a good example to make my point. This is it.

You can easily have more than one modifier in a sentence, and have them all refer to the same thing.

It can be tricky to decide what order to put those modifiers in. In fact the sentence above is an improvement over the first version of it that I wrote, which was

You can easily have more than one modifier in a sentence that refer to the same thing.

Does “that refer to the same thing” modify “sentence,” or does it modify “modifier”? It’s sitting right next to the word “sentence,” and the rule in English is that modifiers go as close to what they refer to as possible. But “sentence” is singular, and “refer” is plural. That can’t be right. I could have swapped the two modifying phrases and written:

You can easily have more than one modifier that refer to the same thing in a sentence.

But that still has the problem of “refer” being a plural verb sitting right next to a singular noun, “modifier.” It doesn’t sound right even though it is. (“More than one” is a plural.) So it’s a bad sentence either way. I solved the problem by making a compound sentence and doing some rewording.

Okay, that was a complicated example. Let’s go to the comic.

I saw a man riding a motorcycle with a broken leg.
I saw a man with a broken leg riding a motorcycle.

The rule about putting the modifier close to what it modifies works well with this sentence.

SO—when you have more than one modifier in your sentence, and they refer to the same thing, THINK!


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Watch your Modifiers

rogersgeorge on January 4th, 2017

Sometimes you can make your writing clearer by adding one or more modifiers. But be sure your added detail is necessary and meaningful. Saying you have a red car distinguishes it meaningfully from different cars (for example, of other colors) but often the word “different” by itself doesn’t carry a lot of content. The world being what it is, if you have another of something, it’s almost always a different one, so you’re not adding a lot of content to say “different.” I mentioned this in the past, so go there.

You have probably heard the tongue-in-cheek comment that someone is “a little bit pregnant.” Pregnancy is one of those things that either is or isn’t; you don’t have much choice of degree.

I just ran into another example of a not-very-meaningful modifier (emphasis mine):

It wasn’t however until Nov 1985 after a workshop that the first media report (in the NY Times) showed the NASA results (publishing another Oct 1983 map for a slightly different day).

They’re not talking about the weather, so I’m not sure that “slightly” means much. I mean, either its the same day or it’s a different day, right? Like being pregnant. Maybe they could be more explicit, saying something like “another day in the same week.”

Anyway, here’s the warning: Pay attention to your writing. And a tip: if you at all can, reread your work the next day. You’ll be able to give it a fresh look.

PS—Since I thought of it, I’ll add that Greek has an interesting way of handling “different.” They have two words, heteros, which means “another of a different kind.” Apples are heteros from horses, if you will. The other is allos, which means “another of the same kind.” My car is allos from your car.

Okay, back to work.

Modifier matters

rogersgeorge on November 12th, 2011

Occasionally I harp on where you put “only” in your writing. With the right sentence, you can create a humorous (or disastrous) misunderstanding by inadvertently modifying the wrong word. Here’s a good example of the effect on meaning caused by where you place the modifier. I put the key phrases in italic to make them, um, obvious.

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult. —C.A.R. Hoare

In this case, the writer wanted to say it both ways to make a point.  Using similar constructions like that calls attention to what he wants to say. Nice.