or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 17, 2005


The English language is a minefield, is it not? And even people who know what they're doing can step on a fragmentation mine if they're not careful, and ka-blam.

Here's a paragraph from Salon's gossip column "The Fix":

Don't mess with the celebrities: If today's celebrity news cycle shows one thing, it's that crime doesn't pay. Things that especially don't pay: breaking into Jennifer Aniston's house (gets you a three-year restraining order, with more serious first-degree burglary and petty theft charges still pending); punching Dr. Dre in the face (gets you a year in jail and a three-year restraining order); and, most serious of all, overcharging David Letterman for painting his house (gets you 10 years in the big house, though some of that has to do with also plotting to kidnap Letterman's son and nanny and holding them for ransom).

The problem here lies in the last clause. The writer was aiming for parallel structure, bless his heart, but his aim was off. Here's what we have: "10 years in the big house [for]...plotting to kidnap...and holding them for ransom". Because these are parallel structures, the sentence means that the plot succeeded and that the people in question were, in fact, held for ransom; in other words, the jail time was for plotting and for holding hostage. But that, as it turns out, isn't the case at all. What the writer intended was, "...plotting to kidnap...and hold them for ransom". Because the verbs "kidnap" and "hold" are parallel, they're modified by "plotting", which means that the plot didn't succeed in either case--that the ten-year sentence was for the plotting and nothing else.

It's a fine point, I know. But these things matter. In spoken English we permit a lot more leeway because people are making things up on the fly, but writers have the time to be clearer and more precise, so the standards are necessarily higher.

Mine are, anyway.


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