or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 01, 2011

All Over the Place

In English, we don't have a huge amount of leeway in where certain words get placed, not like those languages in which grammatical case takes the place of word order. If you have suffixes which tell you which word is the subject and which the object, while at the same time one adjective has a female ending and another a male, then you really have a great deal of freedom as to where those words are placed in a complex sentence, because it will be instantly obvious how all the words relate one to another. In English, since we don't have those features (and good thing, too, I think), we have to be careful how we structure our sentences.

This aspect of the language makes a certain type of joke possible which wouldn't work in many other languages, such as this Groucho Marx classic:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.

The reason the joke works, of course, is that 1) we generally put adjectives, adverbs, and adjectival and adverbial phrases as close as possible to the noun or verb they're modifying, but 2) our brains seamlessly and unnoticeably deduce that "in my pajamas" must refer to me and not to anything else, so it's a surprise when we discover that it doesn't.

When we don't put a modifying phrase next to whatever it's modifying, we get messes like this, from Slate's slideshow on Google logos:

Google paid tribute to the invention of the first laser on May 16, 2008, with this illuminating display.

Even though the reasonable assumption is that we have an adverbial phrase, "on May 16, 2008", which must refer back to the verb phrase "paid tribute", it is also possible that the sentence may be read as referring to "the invention of the first laser on May 16, 2008". I had to read it twice to make sure that I hadn't somehow read the date wrong, and only then--and only after figuring that the laser was a lot more than 3 years old, since I had a CD player in the eighties--could I be sure I had understood the sentence correctly.

All it would have taken was a quick rearrangement to make it as clear as could be: "On May 16, 2008, Google paid tribute to the invention of the first laser with this illuminating display." Now how hard was that?


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