Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sneaky danglers

Apologies for the grotesque nature of this example. I was too appalled to find such an error in a major newspaper to realize how offensive the subject matter was--
The body was found beneath a pile of bedsheets in an advanced state of decay, the court heard, inside a bedroom full of house flies that had also been sealed with tape.

What was sealed with tape? The house flies? No. The bedroom!

Dangling modifiers can be sneaky. Here's one that is a whole clause (that had been....) which has been misplaced. Relative clauses (that/which and verb-- relative clauses are adjectival usually, that is, they explain or amplify a noun) are easily misplaced. They should be adjacent to the noun they modify, and not adjacent to any other noun. 

I think we need to train ourselves to "listen" for mistakes like this.
I'm not sure how to fix that sentence. How would you revise it to get rid of that dangler?

Alicia

15 comments:

Iola said...

The court heard that the body was found beneath a pile of decaying bedsheets, and was surrounded by tape-covered flies.

Iola said...

Anyway, that's got nothing on my local paper. They printed a half-page graphic on the history of the Space Shuttle without proofreading it first. I could tell. The newspaper is in English. but the graphic was in German.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Easy. Seal the bedroom -- "inside a sealed bedroom full of house flies."

We'll leave it to the mystery writers to explain how the flies got into the sealed bedroom 'cause dead bodies and flies are their domain. ;)

Jenny said...

I suspect it was the body that was decayed, not the bedsheets, which further compounds the error.

Laura K. Curtis said...

The body was found in an advanced state of decay beneath a pile of bedsheets, the court heard, inside a tape-sealed bedroom full of house flies?

Personally, I would split it up into more than one sentence and I don't think "the court heard" helps any--if you're describing court proceedings, can't we assume the court heard it?

Jordan McCollum said...

I like what Laura's got going on here, and I agree about "the court heard."

If we're not splitting this into two sentences, I think I would just eliminate "full of house flies" altogether. I doubt the accused hermetically sealed the entire room with said tape, and what does it add to know the room was filled with flies? Does that somehow make it grosser than the advanced state of decay?

Unknown said...

Jordan is right, two sentences would be better. But just to see if it can be done in one:

"The court heard that the body, in an advanced state of decay, was found beneath a pile of bedsheets in a tape-sealed bedroom full of house flies."

I don't think you ear can help you when this many modifiers are present. You have to be willing to "diagram" the sentence in your head, carefully noting which modifying phrases belong to which noun.

It does not surprise me at all to know this appeared in print in a newspaper. In the newspaper business, copyeditors have been dropping like flies, as it were. You may argue that the reporter should know how to construct a complex sentence, but reporters are trained primarily to collect facts and report on them. Some reporters are also good writers, but the two skill sets are not always found equally in one person. And newsroom continuing education almost always centers on newsgathering skills, not writing skills.

John H said...

I read it as the bed sheets being in a state of decay...which may be true if they were soaked in blood long enough to start rotting...

Clare K. R. Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clare K. R. Miller said...

Darn it, no comment edits. My original fix didn't work as well as I thought. Let's try again...

I'm going to rearrange the sentence to how I would have written it, using a different order.

"The court heard that the body was found in a room that had been sealed with tape and was filled with flies, beneath a pile of bedsheets, in an advanced state of decay."

I think that reads much better, tells a story, and has no dangling modifiers (I hope). Or does it now sound like the room was under the bedsheets and decaying?

Laura said...

My fix: The body was found in an advanced state of decay beneath a pile of bedsheets in a bedroom, full of house flies, that had also been sealed with tape, the court heard.

I don't like having "bedsheets" and "bedroom" so close togather, though, so I'd probably eliminate one of them. Also (heh!), I'm not sure that "also" is necessary.

Alicia said...

I liked coined adjective compounds ("tape-sealed") to fix this, but I think they only work in print. Would we ever say that out loud?

Those flies! They're the most difficult element to work with. But the room was full of flies. so that's the essential bit to preserve.

How do flies get into a sealed room? Are they there all along and just come out of hiding when there's a body?
Alicia

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Alicia asked, "Would we ever say that [tape-sealed] out loud?"

I say no, but we wouldn't say such a long, complicated sentence in normal speech either! This sentence would be broken up into two or three.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Oh, and the flies... obviously, it's the ancient theory of spontaneous generation at play again ;)

Anonymous said...

The court heard that the body was found in advanced state of decay inside a sealed-off bedroom full of house flies and beneath a pile of bedsheets.

However, I was wondering who sealed off the room? the police or the murderer?