Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Don't dangle that participle at me

So, I'm usually not too much of a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar. As Philip Marlowe said in The Big Sleep, "I went to college. I can still speak English when my business demands it." And since I am an English teacher, that's pretty much all the time. But grammatical rules and niceties have never been a high priority for me - certainly not higher than communication or grace. And that's why I am wondering why a certain passage bothers me so much.

Last night, I was casting about for another summer book, having found The Life of Pi not to my taste. Coco was offering some some suggestions from the few volumes on her shelves that are not spiritual-metaphysical self-improvement/guidance books (Thich Nhat Hanh and the like) or small business/entrepreneurial guides. She handed me a copy of Maisie Dobbs, a "National Bestseller" that, according to the blurbs, was about an adventurous woman private detective in 1929 London. That sounded promising, so I gave the first page a glance:

I stopped short and two thoughts came rushing into my mind. The first was that, according to the first sentence, "Jack Barker" was the "last person to walk through the turnstile..." But Jack seems to be referred to as she. But she must really mean the "tall, slender woman" mentioned later in the sentence, because the next sentence has the possessive pronoun his in it, dispelling my initial thought that the female lead was named Jack. What was going on? Oh, noes - it was a misplaced modifier! The classic dangling participle!

The second thought that came to me was this has happened before. I suddenly recalled that Coco had suggested this book to me a year or so ago, when she first obtained it and I was looking for some light reading. And I recalled having then the same response I was having now: I cannot read this book.

I had absolutely no confidence in the author. A misplaced modifier is neither a mortal sin nor a moral failing, but c'mon - in the first sentence? And comprising an error that raises gender confusion when a reader might easily be expecting to meet the female protagonist on the first page?

I can't get past it. I couldn't a year ago, and can't now. The wind is gone from my sails, and however captivating Maisie the Detective might be, I will never know. That one inauspicious grammatical misstep that opened the book severed and cauterized whatever bond might have grown between reader and writer. So it goes.

I found a Michener book I hadn't read, Hawaii. There were no people in the entire first chapter, just rocks and seeds and some birds. But there were no dangling participles, either.

No comments: