Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine



Free Speech
By "Guido Veloce"

The beginning of a school year reminds me that I spend much of my life trying to convince undergraduates that the rules of grammar are not infringements on their civil liberties. It is not that I am a grammatical purist. Along with the rest of us, I have been known to boldly split an infinitive and dangle a participle or two that I am aware of. And write an incomplete sentence. All for effect, of course. (Or is it "affect"?) My admonitions to undergraduates to the contrary, cleaning up our English entirely would take a lot of joy out of life.

The tics and twists of dialect and bad grammar for effect are one thing, however. Unconscious and unintended mistakes have pleasures of their own. Mixed metaphors deserve special mention because truly great ones hang like rude noises in the air. There is no way of taking them back, no form of rhetorical damage control. I recall a protest leader in San Francisco in the 1960s concluding a rabble-rousing oration with, "The path I am walking is the wave of the future." The speech did indeed send its hearers to the barricades, but a fair number of them were giggling, and not for the usual reasons.

The problem with mixed metaphors and most fun forms of bad English is that they are not participant sports. The hearer or reader can only smile, laugh, or stand in awe at the author or orator's creativity in mangling the language. There is, however, an exception, and in recent years it has become my favorite crime against English. It is, in technical terms, a form of mixed modifier and what my elderly copy of The Elements of Style has in mind when its authors, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, caution that "a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject." It is easier to hear what I mean than define it; the following is an example, slightly altered, from a style manual reprinted a few years ago in this magazine: "As a girl, he respected her." In an era of sound bites, constructions like that abound in sportscasts and on TV generally, as well as in their linguistic stepchildren, student essays. They require a tin ear for the language on the part of the person who writes or speaks them, and they batter logic in magical ways as the sentence winds toward its end. I treasure them because, unlike mixed metaphors or dialect humor, they allow the hearer or reader a large realm of creativity. There is even a game you can play with them in those moments when you want to be an active reader or listener, or when--to be honest about it--you aren't much engaged in whatever it is you are hearing or reading.

The game goes like this. Stop the sentence right after the clause and the noun, and imagine how it might end, as opposed to the prosaic way it probably will conclude. Take the previous example: "As a girl, he...": a) accessorized badly; b) wobbled on high heels; or c) liked G.I. Jane dolls. Each is a much more interesting sentence than the one the hapless student wrote.

In the last few months, I have had many chances to play the game, and here are some of them. Options a and b are my suggestions. Option c is how the student's sentence actually ended.

Although often deadly, America's elderly...
a) respond to kindness
b) usually misplace their weapons
c) frequently mix a wide variety of prescription and non-prescription drugs

Following his martyrdom, Henry VIII...
a) gave up the marriage thing
b) lost his love handles
c) found that Sir Thomas's popularity continued to grow

As Annie Hall, Woody Allen...
a) showed his softer, more gentile side
b) displayed signs of multiple personality disorder
c) made Dianne Keaton a star

Besides being smart and funny, I...
a) am quite gentle as long as I stay on medication
b) have no conscience
c) want the show to have heart

After 99 pitches, the manager...
a) got the third out in the inning
b) called it a tantrum and went back to the dugout
c) thought it was a no-brainer to remove Mussina

Even though they knew they were being monitored, video recorders...
a) misbehaved shamelessly
b) went ahead and ate the tape
c) showed truck drivers drifting off to sleep

One of the great things about the misplaced modifier game is that it is among the few participant sports in late 20th-century America that do not require special equipment--just a television set, a pile of student papers, or an interoffice memo. If you find that your friends, family, or employees are paying unusual attention to your pronouncements, you may already be playing it.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.