or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Out of Place

I'm still sifting through the January archives of the fascinating Boing Boing (I have a job, I have a life, these things take time), and I ran across this, the opening salvo from a customer-service letter:

"As a valued GTC Telecom customer, we are concerned about your current unpaid balance."

Even as a child I had an eye for such sentences, before I knew that there was a name for them, because it was always immediately clear to me how and why they were wrong; so much so, in fact, that I couldn't understand how people could make such a mistake.

As it turns out, this common error is called a misplaced modifier, for the obvious reason that the modifier (which can be a word, a phrase, or an entire clause) is in the wrong place and therefore appears to be modifying something it shouldn't: in this case, "a valued GTC Telecom customer" must necessarily refer to the word "we".

The annoying thing about this example is that it's so easy to fix: "As you are a valued GTC Telecom customer...." A more literal rewriting would give us "As a valued GTC Telecom customer, you have a current unpaid balance which concerns us."

Doubtless it's just me and a small scrappy band of grammar fiends who find such errors glaringly obvious, but I can't see how anyone re-reading his or her writing can miss something like that. I just can't.


So I'm thinking about misplaced modifiers and how in other circumstances they're called dangling participles ("Daydreaming, the cat startled me.") And that made me think of Lieutenant Dangle on "Reno 911", so I Googled "dangle 911" for no particular reason, and the last link on the first page disclosed this marvellous error:

"Reno 911 is something you have to see to be believed."

I don't even know what to call that. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's as if the writer couldn't make up his mind between "You have to see it to believe it" and "It has to be seen to be believed" and decided to split the difference.


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