Also, Karl Marx used a lot of run-on sentences

It may say something about me that when I read this Global Post article about Scandinavian countries' prosecution of people who mutilate the genitals of their daughters, what I found most striking was the grammar.

The article contains this sentence:

Last year, at age 19, a Swedish court convicted the mother for those illegal acts, awarding the victim record demages.

Yes, "damages" is misspelled. What actually bothered me, though, was that this sentence contains what's known as a dangling modifier. And it's a really impressive example.

Usually, as Clive James points out here, a dangling modifier is just something like "at the age of eight, his father died in an accident". This stops your reading in its tracks until you figure out that the author meant that it was the father of an eight-year-old that died, not an eight-year-old father.

The Global Post example aims at that mistake, but manages to hit an even worse one. Literally, it says the Swedish court was 19 years old. So you apply your standard Dangling Modifier Corrector and conclude that the mother was the one who was 19 when she was convicted. And then you find you have to run the sentence through the de-dangler one more time, to get the correct interpretation that it was actually the girl who was "circumcised" who was nineteen years of age when her mother was convicted.

So this isn't just the usual dangling-modifier grammatical pothole. There are bamboo spikes in the bottom of it.

(Oh, and later in the article, there's "originally from Kenya where circumcision rates affect about 32 percent of the female population", which is also quite impressively confusing. I presume it meant to say that about 32% of Kenyan women are "circumcised" - that sorta-kinda lines up with this map from the Wikipedia article on the subject. But who knows?)

As I've said before, I only get really upset about misuse of language when a departure from Correct Usage damages the meaning of the words.

I find the American enthusiasm for calling Lego "Legos" irksome, but have no argument against it as far as meaning goes. But, to pick another oft-quoted example, the slide of the word "decimate" from meaning "kill one tenth of" to meaning "kill most of" is a damaging change. A modern writer will probably intend the second meaning, but you can't be certain - and people who read a contemporary account of the life of Napoleon that contains the word will have their comprehension impeded by the change.

You can't, of course, prevent the meaning of words from drifting. Relatively slow changes like the one affecting "decimate" aren't really a problem unless a word ends up with more than one meaning at the same time, and those different meanings cannot easily be discerned from context. Prescriptivist complaints about what a word "really" means are pointless if general usage says otherwise, and it's even sillier to complain about a word gaining numerous easily-distinguished meanings. English, like most other languages, is full of words that can mean several different things, but everybody still seems to be able to use words like "set" without difficulty.

Dangling modifiers can damage the meaning of the words, but usually don't. If someone was 30 years old when his father died in an accident, you could cruise right over a dangling-modifier account of the event and end up thinking the dad died at 30. Usually, though, the error is like one of the examples currently in the Wikipedia article about dangling modifiers: "As president of the kennel club, my poodle must be well groomed." After a brief double-take, you can see what that means; you don't have to try to work it out from context.

I think I need a new category for grammar problems like this. Down, I say, with lousy writing that can only sanely be interpreted one way, but which forces the reader to decode seemingly nonsensical statements, like the kennel-club one, before they can figure out what the writer actually meant.

(Since this post is completely off the topic of the actual article that triggered it, I invite you all to get back on that topic and have a big argument in the comments about all the wonderful ways in which people chop bits off of genitals. Look, I'll start it off: "Men don't have a clitoris at all, so obviously cutting the clitoris off your little girl is a great step forward in female equality!")

27 Responses to “Also, Karl Marx used a lot of run-on sentences”

  1. timix Says:

    From qdb:

    <CrazyClimber> top dangling modifier of the day:
    <CrazyClimber> "A jet going 100 m.p.h. slammed into a deer, which ruptured a wing fuel tank and dumped 70 gallons of gas on the runway. "
    <CrazyClimber> i knew about cows and methane, but...
    <me_tew> Dammit, when are they going to REQUIRE that fuel tanks on deer be moved away from the wings.

  2. Chazzozz Says:

    Uh...Dan? I hate to be a nitpicker, but if you're writing an article about grammar you'd better be sure yours is 100% spot-on. The fifth paragraph above has this:

    ...not a eight-year-old father.

    It should read:

    ...not an eight-year-old father.

    Sorry, mate, but I'd hate to see you deluged with criticism over it.

  3. Popup Says:

    While I agree with your general idea, I have two minor quibbles:
    - Down, I say, with lousy writing that can only sanely be interpreted one way, but which forces the reader to decode seemingly nonsensical statements, while laudably grammatical makes for a poor battle cry.
    - I believe that the author of the story is not a native English speaker. Marcus Oscarsson is a very Swedish name, and I'd be surprised if he spoke English at all before the age of 10. I'm not sure if this should be counted in his favour or not, however. It probably means that he has studied more English grammar than most native English speakers, and should be more open to the fact that maybe his command of English is less than perfect. I'd say that the problem here is not with the author, but the editor, who should have been extra ruthless with the language.

    And, back to topic: "It's well known that (male) circumcision reduces the incidence of AIDS, and therefore reducing female circumcision might slow the AIDS epidemic, which in turn would generate more population growth and greenhouse gasses. Therefore I propose the slogan Chop a clit - save a tree!"

  4. Popup Says:

    Ooops, I got my final catch-phrase the wrong way round. It should of course be save a clit - save a tree!
    (And let me say in my defence that English is not my native tongue.)

  5. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I hate to be a nitpicker, but if you're writing an article about grammar you'd better be sure yours is 100% spot-on.

    Not if you're talking about meaning-damaging errors, and have not made one :-).

    And in any case, complaining about a failing which you yourself have does not make your complaint invalid.

    (I've fixed it anyway, of course.)

  6. Changes Says:

    The very concept of genital mutilation freaks me out to a degree I cannot even begin to describe, so I'll politely refuse your offer to talk about that.

    As for the grammar issue: I feel there are much worse things happening than dangling modifiers. In a few years, we'll have sms-speak in newspapers; now THAT's worth worrying about.

    Also, I have a personal crusade ongoing against the misuse of apostrophes (and I'm not even a native english speaker).

  7. Stefans Says:

    Try 18th century texts. From "Astronomical Dialogues between a Gentleman and a Lady," which I'm being paid to transcribe into XML:

    *By* that will of the Creator, Madam, which we call the /Law of Gravity/, or /Gravitation/; whereby all heavy Bodies have a Tendency towards the Centre of our Earth, in such an over Proportion, that the /Centripetal Force/, by which Bodies tend thither, is almost 300 times greater than that by which they are forced off by the Earth’s Motion round its /Axis/, or the /Centrifugal Force/, as they call it; and ’tis this /All-wise Provision/ that keeps all things together on the Surface of the Earth; and which, when exactly adjusted, keeps also every Planet in its proper Circle, and at its due Distance from the Sun, or from its Primary one: And this is so universal a Law, that it prevails every where: And if a Cannon-Ball could be discharged from any considerable Height, in the Air, parallel to our Horizon, and with a velocity equal to that of the Earth’s Attraction, or the force of Gravity towards the Earth’s Centre, it would then neither /fall/ to the Earth at all, nor go quite /off/ from it, but would /revolve round/ it, like our Moon; and this is the very Reason why she doth so.

    (The slashes and asterisks indicate italics and smallCaps, it's easier than tagging it properly all the time)

    It might have been grammtically correct for the time, and it might even be now (As I am a native english speaker, I know approximately bugger all about my own language), but it is mind-numbing and soul-crushing.

    And, er, yeah. Female genital mutilation == bad.

  8. kamikrae-z Says:

    On a related note:

    I for one could never have passed eighth grade - I don't even know what the definition of one of the subjects is!

  9. Daniel Rutter Says:

    You sell yourself short, kamikrae-z.

    If you were reasonably intelligent, and had paid a moderate amount of attention in the previous grades, you most certainly COULD have passed that famous 1895 exam. Just as, I presume, reasonably intelligent kids transported from those days to ours (and given a normal amount of time to learn what modern kids normally learn) would have done fine on modern exams. This is one of those "intelligence test" things, where people from a very different culture from the one that made the test get terrible scores, but this does not necessarily indicate that they're actually less intelligent (whatever "intelligent" even means, of course).

    Be wary of falling into the trap of believing the people who always say that the kids today, they're all idiots, education is going to hell in a cocked hat, and the music they listen to is just noise, and vacate the greensward 'twixt my abode and the thoroughfare at once you ruffians, et cetera. People in Ancient Greece were saying stuff like this, and apparently educational standards have been falling ever since. You'd think we'd all have reverted into blue-green algae by now, if such claims were correct.

    Snopes has a good piece about the 1895 exam. They mark it as "false", not because the exam isn't genuine (though I'm not certain that it is), but because it's invariably presented as evidence of declining educational standards, but does not in fact support that argument.

  10. ImaFish Says:

    I know that Lego is a trademark, thus under the law it is not supposed to be used as a noun. So of course we should not pluralize the trademark, as technically that would make no sense.

    However, do Australian kids actually call them "Lego brand toy building blocks"?

    Hey billy, what do you want to do?
    How about we play with our Lego brand toy building blocks?
    Great idea, then we can play with our Frisbee brand throwing disc.
    Fantastic, but I'm not finished playing my Grand Theft Auto brand gaming software on my Playstation 3 brand gaming console.

    It just seems infinitely simpler to ignore the law and treat trademarks as nouns, and then pluralize them when necessary.

  11. wds Says:

    How about male genital mutilation. I remember seeing one episode of ER a long time ago that was quite optimistic about the upsides of snipping the foreskin. Something that I never understood, given everything else I've read on how it interferes with your sex life. Are american doctors really convinced this is a good way to try and slow the spread of aids, or was this one tv show with a somewhat strange storyline?

    [I congratulate you on this excellent attempt to get the argument going. To my knowledge the epidemiological argument for male circumcision, in remotely civilised countries, is quite weak, but there are nonetheless people determined to make it. And, on the other side, there are blokes convinced that being circumcised has robbed them of Half of What it Means to Be a Man; some of them move on to immensely entertaining retrosurgical or flesh-stretching adventures in their attempts to recreate that which was removed. I heartily encourage representatives of each of these camps to fully and frankly state their case here. -Dan]

  12. ImaFish Says:

    10. "I know that Lego is a trademark..."

    I'm thinking that your complaint about Lego being pluralized had nothing to do with Lego being a trademark and was actually related to the distinction between mass and count nouns.

    I assume we in the US treat Lego as a count noun because the words "brick," "block," and "piece" are all count nouns.

    Give me one brick/give me two bricks.
    Give me one piece/give me two pieces.
    Give me one Lego/give me two Legos.

  13. Erik T Says:

    Correct. Likewise, "moose" is both singular and plural; however I do not need to say "That there is a big group of Moose-brand ungulates."

    I enjoy playing with Lego. A single Lego or many Lego.

  14. socro Says:

    A lot of recent studies on HIV/AIDS transmission and male circumcision have been forced to stop for ethical reasons half-way through -- either to offer immediate circumcision to the uncircumcised males in the study, or to protect females from those found to be positive mid-study. The reduction in transmission rates for circumcised men are startling, and have led to a rethink in the medical world, including here in Australia, as to whether circumcision at birth is appropriate. The answer for developed nations like Australia is still "no", but in my view that will change over time. The Fairfax papers wrote about that about a week ago.

    A couple of interesting BBC News articles on this here, here, here and here.

    I like how the guy/girl above has "a personal crusade ongoing against the misuse of apostrophes (and I'm not even a native english speaker)."

    It's funny how we non-native speakers sometimes carry the flag for better grammar. I do that as a fluent, but non-native speaker of Russian. Gradually, Russian is easing out the use of the character ё, pronounced yo, preferring for speed's sake to write "е" without the dots, which is a completely different sound -- pronounced like "ye". You have to figure out the pronunciation yourself. A good example of how this makes life harder for foreigners is the name "Gorbachev", which should be pronounced like "GOR-ba-chov", and probably written that way in English too, but is often written in Russian "Горбачев", or "Gor-ba-CHEV". OK, grammar rant finished :-)

  15. socro Says:

    IS startling. The reduction IS startling! :-)

  16. ImaFish Says:

    13. "I enjoy playing with Lego. A single Lego or many Lego."

    Wow, that sounds fricken weird to me. I'm not saying you're wrong or I'm right. To me if there's no ambiguity there's no "right" answer, just what we're used to hearing.

    Mass nouns are usually not easily countable. Such as rice and water. So there are very few circumstances were we would say, "Give me three rices."

    But mass nouns usually have a corresponding count noun to go with them for those rare situations where we do want a specific quantity. For example, we say "grains of rice" or "molecules of water."

    So if I want two servings of Coke brand carbonated cola flavored beverage, I'd ask, "Give me two bottles of Coke" rather than "Give me two Cokes" because Coke is a liquid.

    So what is the corresponding count noun associated with Lego? "Give me three pieces of Lego"? "Give me three blocks of Lego"?

    I want to go to Australia and listen to kids while they're playing with Lego brand toy plastic building bricks and pieces.

  17. Red October Says:

    I see a great many vans and things here with "Driver's wanted" on the back. I awlays think: "Driver's WHAT wanted?".

    Regarding female genital cutting, on the face of it it looks very bad. Then of course you think we (at least in American) circumcise our male babies quite a lot, although we have a great deal of sound medical reasoning behind us (reduces spread of AIDS, is more hygenic, greatly reduces the chance of penile cancer, etc.), we do a lot of other things that are nearly as offensive; I hate it when I see people with very young children dressed in religious garb, or being dragged off to a religious ceremony; it makes me want to take to the parents with a length of rubber hose until they surrender their belief and treat their children better. Of course then another part of me thinks that I should respect their freedom of religion, even though religion is to the mind what the scalpel is to the genitals... Nevermind people who pierce their children's ears when they are still infants. It is so very hard to walk the line between respecting other people's freedoms & cultures, and telling them flat to their face they are wrong and causing harm. I don't know where you draw that line with FGC but one thinks that because it is done for societal/cultural reasons versus health/hygene ones for male circumcision, that you'd want to wait until the individual in question can give an informed oppinion. Plenty of people in western culture "mutilate" themselves for all sorts of reasons, usually soceito-cultural ones, but they usually do it at their own behest, so that's where I'd draw the line.

  18. metalskin Says:

    Hmm this Lego discussion is interesting. I grew up with Lego, loved it as a kid during the 70's and early 80's. Never ever in my life until now have I seen or heard the form Legos. Looks like the name for an elf if you ask me!

    I do not know the correct terms but if I was to refer to multiple units of Lego blocks then I would say something along the lines of:

    "Can I have some Lego pieces please?"

    "Can you pass me some blocks of Lego"

    "Give me some bl**dy Lego blocks"

    "Mum he is hogging all the Lego"

    As I've demonstrated it is quite possible to refer to Lego as you would refer to sheep, "Give me some sheep", "Give me a sheep", "Do you have any sheep?" I'm not aware of a collective for it though, but don't even collectives change the noun? E.g. it is a gaggle of geese but a single goose, a flock of birds, a bird.

    Just my thoughts :)

    Oh on the circumcision discussion, well I'm 40, was chopped as a kid. Apparently (don't have the statistics) but a lot of males in Australia were circumcised back in the 60's and early 70's. It's died out now but I'm not really certain why. My three sons are not circumcised mainly because no one asked and we didn't know how to ask. It does appear to help in cleanliness, which of course can be managed with education. However a lot of parents find it hard to discuss such issues with children about cleaning such private parts of a young boy's anatomy. My second son had a serious infection and had to have surgery as a result when he was around umm 6. Doctors said at the time that a circumcision would be required if it reoccurs as the circumcision will stop it.

    But then it comes down to the health pluses and minuses and which side it falls on. Aid's is an interesting case and not sure if that is a good enough reason to justify it considering how safe sex and sex education can have a big impact on it as well. To me the bigger issue is potential hygiene issues versus the chances of damage (which I hear can cause too much sensitivity and other issues).

    What does annoy me is how people who are opponents of male circumcision as they feel it is abuse use emotive video and terms to try and push their agenda.

  19. Kagato Says:

    Lego is definitely a mass noun to me.

    Lego is like sand. If you're doing anything useful with it, you should have so much that calling it a collection of parts becomes meaningless.

    "I have too much Lego to fit in this box."
    "I have too many Lego bricks to fit in that box."

    Any of bricks, blocks or pieces are fine as count nouns depending what bits you're talking about.

  20. FuzzyPlushroom Says:

    I'm an American. I play with Legos. I'd be willing to play with Lego if folks in other Commonwealth nations would be willing to work on math with me instead of 'maths'.

    As far as circumcision is concerned, I think it's a damn shame that some cultures view it as necessary for either gender, though obviously it's far more of a concern in females (because it's not so much circumcision as mutilation). If a young boy is taught to keep his penis clean, and learns when he is of age that he must use a condom with partners with whom he is not in a long-term monogamous relationship, I see no disadvantages to his penis remaining intact. On the other hand, if his foreskin is removed, it makes it ever-so-slightly harder to have a wank, and of course some folks view that as dirty and sinful and such. It seems to me that the foreskin's continual existence should be a non-issue.

  21. ZorglubZ Says:

    If "maths" is short for "mathematics", what is "math" short for..?
    As for the mutilation of genitalia, I'm a Norwegian (and therefore also a Scandinavian), and I fully approve of the prosecutions. As for the male variety... that's rather uncommon here, the notable exception being the religiously mandated variety.

  22. n17ikh Says:

    If "maths" is short for "mathematics", what is "math" short for..?
    Mathematics. As I've seen it said elsewhere, the s goes away with the ematic.

    As an American, I also say Legos. Firefox, however, is underlining it with red squiggles and is suggesting that I change it to Lego, Leos, or perhaps Egos.

  23. Red October Says:

    Fuzzy I don't know where this idea comes from that male circumcision makes it difficult to have a wank... I've never had a problem with it in my life ;) I've never understood the problem some people have with male circumcision; it doesn't generally cause anything like the problems that have decent odds of comming along with female circumcision, nor is it particularly destructive to sensitive tissues, and it brings to the table many benefits (whereas when you get right down to it, the female job is basically a cosmetic procedure with no direct health benefit in sight.) It becomes a human rights issues because it's done with old razors in the bush (or worse, broken glass!) on people who gave no consent. I know I'd be just as aghast if they were doing unrequested boob jobs on six-year-olds, using tools found in a mechanic's shop. "Mutilating" ourselves is part of our culture, and we all do it in one way or another (cosmetic surgery is the chosen, socially acceptable form in the west, but as anyone who's ever been to BMEzine can tell you, the rest of the world's practices are finding root in western soil. Since I try to be open-minded an respectful of everyone's freedom, even to do boneheaded things, I have to draw the line at "done without consent in unhygenic conditions" not "Ack! Genital surgery!" like I think many people are. (And I do have a little suspiscion that at least a few are simply going "Ack! Culture different from mine!")

  24. unfunk Says:

    Two things, Red:

    1) Female Circumcision usually involves removal of the clitoris. That would be like male circumcision removing the glans of your penis. It's far more dangerous and life-destroying than the removal of some excess folds of skin.

    2) Don't you find you have to use some sort of lubrication to.. uh... squeeze one off? At least being uncut I can choose to have my foreskin removed at a time of my own choosing, should I wish to do so. A 3-week old baby has no such choice.


    So anyway, the correct usage of Lego is:

    Can I have some Lego please?
    Pass me that long block.
    No, not that long, the other one.
    The blue one.
    Look, I made a Lego car!
    Watch as I drive my car made of Lego into the wall!
    I guess I'd better pick up all the Lego that went everywhere...


    Here, go play with your Lego.
    Make sense?

  25. unfunk Says:

    Dan! I think I found an odd bug with your new-fangled commenting system (apologies if it's been found already).

    The preview thinger will accurately preview <UL> tags, but they're not allowed in the actual post. Being the sort of geek that expects things to work, I only read the "allowed HTML" thing after it had already mangled my nicely formatted text :(

  26. Red October Says:

    Unfunk; I know what is usually involved in female circumcision. Plenty of cosmetic procedures ruin the intended function of the parts they are on; boob jobs can leave nasty scars if done sloppily (as all bush surgery will be) and can degrade the sensitivity of the nipple even if done right, botox injections will slowly eliminate your ability to move your face, so on and so forth; I kinda thought most people would make that jump. Whoops.

    But no, while I won't get into the specifics of the procedure, let's say I can crank one off unaided without too much trouble, and to be honest, even if it were a problem, K-Y is cheap and VD or penile cancer is no fun, nevermind having one less place on your body for funk to accumulate, I'm happy with the current situation.

  27. Coderer Says:

    Always an education, this blog. I did not think that "decimate" had meant "to kill one tenth of"; rather, I had thought it meant "to kill *nine*-tenths of", as in to reduce by a factor of 10. Which, in my book, is not a far leap from "to kill most of", which would have meant that the term had not been too badly polluted. But apparently I got that wrong. Huh.

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