Friday 18 June 2010

Coming, I Saw and Conquered

Contemplate the title of this post. It is less natural than the original. It is less clear than the original. It is less snappy than the original. In short, it is worse.

Over on the Dear Dogberry page, Moptop has been complaining about a novel filled with sentences like this:

Doing something, he did something else.

That structure is extraordinarily common in written English, and rare in spoken. Sometimes the order is reversed and you get:

He did something, doing something else.

Puffing meditatively on his pipe, Aloric shot an elephant. "I'll give you £100 pounds for the trunk," cried the Inky Fool, flicking frantically through a dog-eared book of recipes.

There are two problems with sentences like this. The first is well known, indeed it's one of the few bits of grammar that still get taught in schools: the dangling modifier.

In the sentence "Puffing meditatively on his pipe, Aloric shot an elephant" we understand that it is Aloric who is doing the puffing. The participle belongs to the first noun after the comma.

Therefore, in the sentence "Walking up the street, my mobile phone began to ring" it is technically my mobile phone that is walking up the street.

That sentence is on the cusp of alrightness. Grammatically it's wrong, but it would be hard to misunderstand. Indeed it would require a small effort of will. Some dangling modifiers are so much part of the language that they cannot be faulted.

Speaking of which, the weather's nice today.

You would have to be a pedant of Himalayan proportions to ask how the weather could speak. Indeed, if you asked me that, your body might never be found*. The problem with danglers is not one of Absolute Grammar, the problem is that they can be unintentionally comic or offensive.

Beautiful yet simple, the Inky Fool will perform Fur Elise in the bakery at midnight.

Is, to be honest, correct however you read it. Bill Bryson cites this lovely line from Time magazine.

In addition to being cheap and easily obtainable, Crotti claims that the bags have several advantages over other methods.

Which makes poor Crotti a cheap slut.

The second problem with such sentences was rather nimbly pointed out in a comment on yesterday's post. The Antipodean was correcting one of my myriad typos.

"Prophecy?" she says, sipping from her chipped fine bone china coffee-mug. Actually I probably wouldn't talk and sip at the same time, but you get the gist.

The participle implies synchronicity. This means that you have to be dreadfully careful about what actions you yoke together. Sloppy novels are filled with lines like: "Skidding to a halt, he leaped out of his car", which is simply a dangerous and irresponsible way of parking, especially on the school run. One of the sentences Moptop cited on Dear Dogberry ran:

Opening his eyes, he watched Lazar.

The frustrating thing about that sentence is that it could so easily be recast.

He opened his eyes and watched Lazar.

Is that so hard? Is that so odd? As I said at the beginning of this post, these participle sentences are pretty rare in spoken English. People tend to chat in short simple sentences connected by conjunctions (speech, if you listen carefully, has very few full stops)**. It is only when a fellow sits down to write that he suddenly starts converting every other verb into a participle. As well as sounding slightly unnatural, this exposes him to the dangers described above and is Utterly Unnecessary.

It is so easy to avoid these dangers. It is so much more natural to have two verbs connected by and. Here are the other sentences Moptop cited along with the natural alternative:

Standing over him, Zoya raised the knife.
Zoya stood over him and raised the knife.

Hearing the guards at the window, Malysh picked up a slate.
Malysh heard the guards at the window and picked up a slate.

Standing up, she glanced into the hallway.
She stood up and glanced into the hallway.

That's how you'd say it, so why not write it that way?
Of course there are times when the actions are simultaneous. More specifically, there are times when one continuous action acts as the background for a shorter one. "Reading Hamlet, I came across this line" should not be recast, because the actions are not consecutive. One occurs during the other and so the participle is dandy and fine. I am not attempting to outlaw the practice, merely to observe the overuse and the risk.
I once read (and cannot now find) an essay by Clive James on writing for the radio. He observed that English is a basically linear language. Perhaps a more inflected language like Latin or German would allow for more grammatical complexity, but it is unnatural for English. Though we can subordinate our clauses we tend not to. This, he said, counts doubly for the radio. The reader of a book can always check back to the beginning of a sentence to work out who or what is doing the verb, a listener cannot. So sos, ands and buts beat commas.

Sell participles and buy conjunctions. Or: selling participles, buy conjunctions.

However, I should conclude by saying that the rules of English are neither hard nor fast. Consider the following from Paradise Lost. Brave young grammarians, intent on making a name for themselves, have set off into this sentence hoping to find a main verb and never been heard of again. But it's wonderful. This is a fallen angel addressing Satan in Hell.

"If thou beest he--but O how fallen! how changed
From him who, in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine
Myriads, though bright!--if he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the glorious enterprise
Joined with me once, now misery hath joined
In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest
From what height fallen: so much the stronger proved
He with his thunder; and till then who knew
The force of those dire arms?"

The Inky Fool contemplating a typo

*Although I might post it back, piece by piece, to your nearest and dearest.
** Far commoner is "I was walking down the street when my mobile began to ring". However, neither of the dangers described in this post can apply to such sentences.


  1. Rushing to express gratitude, the iPhone slipped from my hand.

    In all of next years' module handbooks, your blog (and this post in particular) will be required reading. Grazie mille!

  2. Enough food for thought to cater for a banquet...

  3. The Antipodean19 June 2010 at 07:26

    I am pleased to see you are taking typos so seriously.

    I considered alternative sentence structures, but was side-tracked into what punctuation, if any, was required for the string of coffee-mug attributes in the sentence. I went with self-critique instead, possibly inspired by a faint memory of Moptop's query.

    Over-analysis: the procrastinator's alternative to Saturday chores...