"After 20 years in a box, Monica Iken is ironing her wedding dress …" Those words began a profile by a TV journalist whose work I have always admired — the CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman. His deft treatment of human-interest stories rivals that of the master, the late Charles Kuralt. This story focused on a woman whose husband died in the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
I'm sure that Hartman wrote those words. Question: Where was his copy editor?
How many in the audience instantly thought that Monica Iken had been in a box for 20 years? After all, that's what the sentence says.
And there you have one of the most common afflictions in modern communication: our old enemy, the dangling modifier.
If Hartman had meant that Monica Iken had been in a psychological box for 20 years, the sentence would have made sense. But the box held a wedding dress. If you insist on writing, "After 20 years in a box …" the next thing you write has to be what was in the box. As in, "After 20 years in a box, Monica Iken's wedding dress came out of storage so she could wear it in memory of her husband …"
Another version: "After her wedding dress had been in a box for 20 years, Monica Iken, whose husband died in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, removed the dress and ironed it to wear in memory of the man she had been married to for only 11 months before his death."
Hartman rose to his perch at CBS News after distinguishing himself at KSTP-TV here in the Twin Cities. Anyone who saw his work back then had to know he was on his way up.
Steve Hartman is gifted; he's not perfect. Who among us is? But with the help of editors, and especially with the self-help of reading our stuff aloud before letting anyone else see it, we can make what we write say what we mean.
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson teaches journalism at Colorado College. Gilson can be reached through his website writebetterwithgary.com.