Friday, September 2, 2011

Another in a series of really picky line editing examples, where-in I supply your possible protests so you don't have to.

Remember the game "Mad-Libs?" In that, you were given a sentence that had a lot of blanks, and you were supposed to supply words that fit the needed part of speech for some part of the sentence, and when the right p-o-s (part of speech) was inserted more or less randomly, you could get a theoretically hilarious sentence like this love letter:

Dear Wendy,

It has come to my air that you are the fastest girl in the hot dog. My ovary starts setting a catapult every time you speak. I would like to resist if you want to go to the operation with me next Tuesday. If you crane, please whimper me at the Andorra in week. I bicker you and everything about you.


The fun of this has always been that even the youngest language speaker can "parse" the absurdity while "hearing" the rightness of the syntax (sentence) order. While this might seem like merely a silly party game for word nerds, my perfectly normal college freshmen classes love playing this, missing utterly my point, which wasn't to Have Fun (heaven forfend).  This exercise is used by linguists to learn when children start internalizing syntax as a giver of meaning. (Hilarity ensues only if you're able to understand that "fastest girl in the hot dog" is the right sentence order and can for a second envision a bunch of female track stars running around in a hot dog.)

Well, I had that discombobulating Madlibs reaction when I read this perfectly syntactical sentence in an article: The security forces scout and secure locations. 

I was wondering why this sentence was so hard to read, and realized that almost every word could be a noun or a verb or something else. That is, most of the words could be a different part of speech than actually called for in the sentence:

"Security" is an adjective for "forces," but could be a noun on its own, like "cops," and
"forces" could be a verb ("compels"), and as I initially assumed "security" was a noun (so here the subject), "forces" became the predicate of the sentence in my preliminary read:

The security (subject) forces (present tense verb) (something to happen or something to do something).

Scout, of course, is most often a noun (the Boy Scout wore his uniform proudly). If I read "security" as a noun and "forces" as the verb, as I initially did, "scout" would seem like the object. It makes sense syntactically (that is, as a noun, the "right" part of speech to be the direct object), but at that moment, the semantics fall apart, because how can it be the security forces "scout" (no capital, so not the heroine Scout of the Harper Lee novel :) to do something? That's the instant I would have to go back and start re-reading, confused by my initial ("security= subject) mistake.

The confusion doesn't stop there, however. "Secure" can be (and usually is) an adjective, especially when used right before an applicable noun. "Locations" is an applicable noun--  "secure locations" is an understandable adjective-noun unit (locations that are secure), and a far more common locution than "to secure (verb meaning make secure of) locations (places)."

So… a syntactically correct (subject-verb- double direct object) sentence, that read as I first did, makes no sense.

Who is at fault here for the misreading? Well, why bother to assign blame? After all, it's not a moral issue. However, whenever there's a mismatch between what the writer meant and what the reader gets, the writer should "feel" that and go back and see if there's any way to make the meaning clear, to use the syntax to clarify, not obfuscate, the meaning.

The problem is, my initial confusion (taking "security" as a noun, not adjective) set off a cascade of other confusions, and I was well launched into my own misreading before I realized my mistake, and the other double-duty words just kept making the sentence ring plausibly in my head (all words were the right parts of speech for their position in the sentence).

What can be done? Well, it might help to diagram the actual meant-sentence. I can't find a site (can anyone?) that lets us do the cool diagramming diagonal lines we used to do on the board, but here is the sentence diagrammed as meant:

S                                  V                                 O
   forces                  |scout and secure             | locations.
 \The  \security

When I'm forced to diagram, I can see what's an adjective not a noun (articles like "the" and "a" are diagrammed as adjectives), and what's a verb not a noun. And I do see that the article (the) which is only used before a noun (and so is understood to introduce a noun) can just as easily "point" to "security" as the subject rather than "security forces" as the subject term. So an article ("the") is no help, as it might ordinarily be, in "announcing" the subject-to-come, especially with "forces" (a perfectly good singular-for-a-group-noun predicate) following.

Let me stop here and say that I bet those trained in the British tradition or who grew up speaking that other dialect "British-English" might have no trouble understanding this sentence. See, the Brits pluralize group nouns – The town council are going to the restaurant after the meeting—while Americans singularize group nouns unless the group is (are, actually) disputing something, so:
The town council is going to the restaurant after the meeting.
(In dispute)
The town council are disagreeing about whether to fire the constable.
So a Brit would see "The security forces" and assume that if "security" is a subject (group noun), "forces" can't be the verb, because as a verb it's singular while as a noun it's plural (someone explain to me why the "s" means singular one way and plural the other, please).  In Brit-speak, "The security" (group noun) would "force" (plural verb), so as soon as Brits got to that point (third word), they would probably quickly shift to the correct meaning simply because they re-jiggered the opening words to make it the subject phrase, achieving the right meaning albeit for the wrong reason.
Americans would still be going merrily along down the wrong path with the putative group subject (The security) properly (that is, Americanly) taking the singular verb (forces). That is, the wrong reading is still quite plausible to an American even after word three.

So let's go back to the beginning. It's a good idea to start with a word which announces that what follows is the subject, and the best ways are the article (which should work, but doesn't, because "security" is a good noun and "forces" is a good verb), or a possessive noun or pronoun which is immediately visible as a possessive (so "his" or "Bailey's").  That at least gets the reader into the mindset (as the article does) that what follows will be the subject:

His (security) (forces)

Trouble is, as you can see, we still might have the problem of "security" read as the subject. So if I were to rewrite this, I might start there, replacing the ambiguous modifier "security" with a "adjective-only" or the full term with something that can be read only as an adjective-noun unit. Also I might get really specific in my choice of possessive, to subtly indicate an "owner" (possessive noun) that can immediately be understood as someone who has a security force. "His" doesn't do that, but "Governor Bailey's" does. (A governor would have guards.)

Governor Bailey's protective detail

See what I did there? Governor Bailey's protective detail can immediately be read (correctly, unambiguously) as the subject phrase. The whole term is taken in one gulp—"subject (noun) phrase".  Why? It's mostly because "protective" can only be an adjective. No ambiguity. Adjectives aren't always as distinctive as most adverbs (most adverbs, as we all know, have the distinctive suffix –ly – "hopefully" or "angrily"), but there are suffixes like –ive which are mostly used with adjectives, and yes, I realize "adjective" is itself a noun (the suffix that would make it an adjective is –ival – adjectival).

That's the point. To be unambiguous, choose a word that "pings" only as an adjective that would be used (like a possessive) before a noun as part of a noun phrase.  No ambiguity here—even if "detail" could be read as a verb (it can be a plural verb—John and Mary detail my car), the "protective" means I've already assumed that the next word will be the noun "protective" modifies. That is, "protective" can't be read as the subject/noun, so "detail" can't be read as the verb.

That's probably enough to launch the reader on the right meaning, so that "scout and secure" will be read as the verbs, and "locations" as the direct object (that which is scouted and secured).  Still, some fixing might be required when we go from "forces" (plural noun) to "detail" (group noun which, remember, is usually treated as singular in American English)—have to go with singular verbs:

Governor Bailey's protective detail scouts and secures locations.

That Amer-English oddity (group noun taking singular verb) actually helps, because that "s" at the end of each verb renders it unlikely to be mistaken for an adjective (secures locations?).

What else might help? Well, "protective detail" could be replaced with a single word subject like "bodyguard" or "bodyguards," I suppose.

Or we could split apart the dual predicate, giving each a separate object. I'm not sure why this would work, except that the use of an object kind of "back-means" that a word is a transitive verb (transitive verbs take direct objects), so you'd get to "scout," see an immediate noun and assume that because it's a direct object, "scout" must be a verb, and then what follows the "and" is probably a second predicate-with-object.

So… hmm… this would require a bit more thought, and might be more than we need if we fix the subject phrase:

Governor Bailey's protective detail scouts places and secures the locations (might add to what purpose, like "to eliminate threats in advance of the visit").

I notice that I automatically placed "the" in front of locations, probably just to reiterate that "secures" can only be a verb (as we wouldn't put an article between an adjective and the noun it modifies). But with a singular verb (secures) that's not necessary, as "secures" can't be an adjective anyway.

Or I might take that dual predicate and reduce the words to participles (-ing words), which would require a single predicate for which the participles might serve as explanations or elaborations. I'm not really sure if this will help, but it makes the ambiguous verbs ("scout and secure" could be a noun and adjective, remember) more clearly "verbals," maybe:

Governor Bailey's protective detail work days in advance, scouting and securing locations.

I can hear the protests now from the sentence writer:
"But that's too complicated."

No, it's not. It was complicated before because the reader might get confused. Now it's simpler. The process the writer must go through to clarify might be complicated, but who ever said making good sentences would be easy, huh?

"That doesn't mean what I meant."
Okay, then make it mean what you meant. You're the one in charge. As the editor, I'm just guessing what you meant. If you make it clear, I won't have to guess.

"It's an ugly sentence."
Oh, come on. The original wasn't Keatsian in its beauty and truth either. This isn't poetry. Make it clear first, then make it beautiful if you want to.

"But what if I meant it to be ambiguous?"
You didn't. You probably didn't realize it was ambiguous until I pointed it out. Writers generally kind of (not always, not entirely) know what they mean, so they're already biased towards one meaning and can't usually see the other possible meanings unless they try, as with the "Rubin's vase/face" optical illusion.

"But I want to be ambiguous!"
Why? Just to justify being ambiguous? Why would you want to be ambiguous in a declarative sentence about what bodyguards do? But if you do want to be ambiguous, as you well might in a sentence unveiling a character's mixed motives or hinting at subtext (which this writer is definitely not trying to do), you happened on a good technique, to use terms which can be read two ways dependent on what syntactical element it's taken to be.
Be ambiguous because you mean to be, not just by accident.

"But you're messing with my voice!"
Someone has to. Lucky you have me! I accept gifts of chocolate as measures of gratitude. Email me for my address and brand  preferences.

I notice I keep using the part of speech term (like "noun") and having to remind myself when to use instead the term for the syntactical element. I'll just define that here in case I didn't fix all those:

A noun will usually take the role of either a subject or an object in a sentence.

A verb will usually take the role of a predicate in a sentence.

An adjective or adverb will usually take the role of a modifier (respectively modifying a noun or verb).

(These are my definitions, not official ones.)

Oh, and:

Syntax—how sentence elements are placed in sentences, the roles different words and phrases take in a sentence, and the interactions between the parts.

Semantics—what a sentence actually means.



gaylene said...

Wow. I had to read that sentence several times before I could understand it, too!

Adrian said...

These are called "garden path sentences".

All this ambiguity is what makes it difficult for computers to parse "natural" languages. That's why grammar checkers in word processors haven't gotten much better in the past ten years. The automatic translators have largely given up on trying to actually parse the original sentences and now use a statistical approach to create the translation.

A traditional software parser ends up doing what you just did: make an assumption about the function of a word, get farther into the sentence, discover that it doesn't make sense, and then backtrack and try a different assumption. The more possibilities, the more backtracking.

To a large degree, we use common sense and knowledge about how things work in the real world to reduce the possible interpretations and eliminate much of the ambiguity (and therefore much of the backtracking). "Time flies like an arrow." We know that arrows don't use stopwatches to measure the speed of winged insects, so we pretty quickly throw out the imperative interpretation and realize that it's most likely a philosophical statement on how time passes. But the dictionary in your word processor's grammar checker doesn't have definitions, just the possible parts of speech for each word. It can discover (at least) two grammatically correct ways to parse that sentence. Often, an incorrect sentence does have a grammatically valid parse (like the Mad Libs example). Without meaning, the software cannot detect the mistake.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

The grammars for computer programming languages are carefully designed to eliminate ambiguity, which is what makes programming feasible. (Though some programming languages have grown so complex, you sometimes need to invoke some pretty obscure grammar rules to parse it correctly. The C++ language has an infamous "most vexing parse" because it looks like one kind of statement to even the most veteran programmer, but the computer understands it as something completely different.

Jordan McCollum said...

This >> "But you're messing with my voice!"
Someone has to. Lucky you have me! I accept gifts of chocolate as measures of gratitude. Email me for my address and brand preferences.

Thank you. People throw this out there like it's the "base" of the editing tag world. Just because it's supposedly your voice (really, I think we should say "Just because you wrote it") doesn't mean it's perfect, or even good.

Maybe it IS your voice, but why settle when your voice could be better? (And really, whose couldn't??)

Edittorrent said...

Adrian, LOL about flying bananas. A student sent me this poem about... flying bananas. They can kill, you know.

Good points! I've been moseying down some garden path sentences myself lately.