There have been some disturbing things in the news lately.
When reading a story about the three Americans and the Briton who subdued the gunman on a French train, Karen was dismayed to come upon this sentence: "The assault was described as a terrorist attack by the Belgian prime minister."
Her question: "Will the PM go to jail?"
Bob was incredulous when he read about a mystery chuck of ice that crashed into a California home: "A loud crash startled a California family at home Wednesday morning when a chunk of ice the size of a basketball hurdled from the sky and smashed through the roof, likely the result of frozen moisture breaking loose from an airplane flying high overhead."
"Can you imagine?" Bob wrote. "Not sure what the ice chunk jumped over; instead, maybe it hurtled from the sky."
"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice. Actually, that one makes sense. Alice has just said goodbye to her feet after eating a cake that has made her telescope to 9 feet tall in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," but in this case the 19th-century author Lewis Carroll offered an apology and an explanation by way of an aside: "She was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English."
Forgetting how to speak good English — it seems to be going around these days.
In Karen's example above, the unintended meaning comes from a misplaced modifying phrase: "The assault was described as a terrorist attack by the Belgian prime minister." Moving the prepositional phrase to its proper location, adjacent to the verb it modifies, eliminates the ambiguity: "The assault was described by the Belgian prime minister as a terrorist attack."
Bob's example, hurdled for hurtled, illustrates our tendency to misuse homonyms, or words that sound alike, an understandable error in this case. After all, unlike the Brits, long ago we Americans began pronouncing many of our t's as d's, as in wahder for water and lader for later. (Do you pronounce those t's?) More recently, I've noticed even well-educated speakers saying tah for to, as in "Tah tell the truth," and gotta for got to, as in "I've gotta go" rather than "I've got to go," or heaven forbid, "I must go."
I'm not saying the sky is falling. Language changes, sometimes for the better, but let's resist change that degrades our rich, vibrant, quirky, wonderful English language. Here are some exercises to keep you on your toes.
Which one of the following sentences contains an error?
1. It's good to be back to my old stamping grounds.
2. After Saddam Hussein flaunted the no-fly zones, we invaded Iraq in 2003.
3. She worked quickly to stanch the flow of blood.
Did you identify the misuse of flaunt, which means "to show off," for flout, which means "to show contempt for," in sentence 2? (Yes, stamping, not stomping, and stanch, not staunch, are correct.)
Finally, do you see anything wrong with this sentence? "Meals are prepared under supervision of a dietitian packaged in disposable Styrofoam containers."
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.