Words: Know Your Place

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If anything is likely to make me guffaw in a very unladylike manner, it’s the hilarious ambiguity that only a dangling clause can create. “Despite being delicious, most British consumers consider small fish not worth the effort to cook,” said the narrator of a documentary shown this week on the BBC. Well then, we delicious British consumers had better get over ourselves and rethink our attitude to those small fish, hadn’t we? And then there’s this sort of comment, said, for example, by a broadcast journalist thinking on her feet during a celebrity interview: “As one of the most important and talented film directors in the world, I am interested in hearing what motivates you.”

Gosh, darling, if you’re such a talented film director, what are you doing on the wrong side of the interview?

This sort of mistake comes from good intentions, I think. The speaker wants to take the focus away from herself and put it onto the thing she’s talking about, so she starts with a clause about that thing and then brings herself back into the sentence. That’s admirable. In doing that, though, she forgets what the subject of the sentence is. And chaos ensues. Obviously, when we hear a dangling clause we understand what was intended; we know she simply meant to flatter the film director. But that’s only after a moment’s confusion and comedy effect. As John Humphrys says in his book Lost for Words, the dangling clause is “funny maybe, but it won’t do.” For John, the dangling clause “should be a hanging offence.”

I agree, John, as ever. Yes, I quite agree. As one of the wittiest and most knowledgeable commentators on the English language today, I am in complete agreement with you about that. (Ha ha ha. Just testing.)

The dangling clause is the only bit of language misuse that makes me giggle instead of cry or thrash with rage. And that’s because its effect is just so silly that one can hardly believe the writer or speaker went ahead and did it. Especially the writer; the speaker might do it by mistake and not be able to turn the sentence around in time to catch it. But there’s no excuse for that BBC documentary narrator, who probably had a script written for him and ought to have realised, before recording, that the bit about delicious British consumers needed a spot of editing.

It’s even funnier – and makes the point more starkly – if you play with the sentence and put the clause in the middle, in its subordinate function:

Most British consumers, despite being delicious, consider small fish not worth the effort to cook.

I, as one of the most important and talented film directors in the world, am interested in hearing what motivates you.

That should be the test performed by anyone before they commit a clause to paper or to air. Put your subject back at the beginning of the sentence, and check whether you could slot the clause into the middle in between commas. It should be able to sit there, happily adding some description or qualification about the subject. If it looks ridiculous, do something about it, urgently.

Look at all those leaflets you get from big companies and supermarkets whose PR departments are keen to tell you that “as a valued customer, we are giving you extra clubcard points this month” or “as the world’s most trusted bank, your money will be in good hands.” Let’s do the test.

We, as a valued customer, are giving you extra clubcard points this month.

Your money, as the world’s most trusted bank, will be in good hands.

Ridiculous. Incorrect. And not at all what these companies intended to say, bless their corporate socks. So let’s take action. It’s that word ‘as’ that’s the problem in both these cases. It’s being asked to do too much work in the clause. There are only a few more words needed here in order to restore sense:

Because you are a valued customer, we are giving you extra clubcard points this month.

Given the fact that we are the world’s most trusted bank, your money will be in good hands.

Yes. Super. Those all work. They’re good, strong clauses that behave correctly in partnership with the sentence that follows the comma. They’re too long, though, and not punchy enough. That’s what the PR people in both organisations will have thought. So they took a shortcut. They decided that, as we consumers have no attention span whatsoever, apparently, ‘as’ would do the trick. Well, it won’t.

While we’re at it, let’s sort out the British consumers and the small fish, shall we? It only needs a couple of extra words.

Despite the fact that small fish are delicious, most British consumers don’t consider them worth the effort to cook.

And, if we move it around to check the sense:

Most British consumers, despite the fact that small fish are delicious, don’t consider them worth the effort to cook.

Good. Obviously the rearrangement makes the sentence clunky which wouldn’t suit documentary narration. But the point is that it’s still grammatical; that clause can now be shuffled about happily without causing any ambiguity about who, exactly, is delicious in this situation.

And I might as well draw to your attention a related problem, a particularly new, trendy type of narration that I’ve noticed. The BBC is the culprit again, I’m afraid; I’ve heard it in The Apprentice and The Restaurant, both of which use a narrator to track the actions of hapless contestants. “In Oxford, on the hunt for sixty ramekins for tonight’s launch party, Simon.” It’s always that structure: a description of the scene put in the form of a clause, followed by just the name of the person who is on screen at the time. How odd, I thought, the first few times I heard it. By now, it seems quite normal, even formulaic.

I’m not sure it’s unacceptable. Though it’s muddled, and uses words in a peculiar order, the structure does have a certain ring to it and creates dramatic effect. “At the advertising agency, with only five minutes left to design the packaging for their new brand of fake tan, Kelly and Steve.” Why not just tell us about Simon and Kelly and Steve’s japes by slotting the words back into their rightful places in the sentence, and reinstating that old-fashioned thing, the verb?

Simon is in Oxford, on the hunt for sixty ramekins for tonight’s launch party.

Kelly and Steve are at the advertising agency with only five minutes left to design the packaging for their new brand of fake tan.

I think the viewing public could cope with that, don’t you? Or, perhaps that should be: able to cope with properly constructed sentences, the viewing public.

Dear, oh dear. It’s only when writers and speakers try to be too jazzy with the language that mistakes happen. It’s far easier not to write stupidly. If one allows different types of words to sit in their natural places in a sentence, there’s no reason for any ambiguity. Don’t ask the English language to work too hard and don’t expect to be able to throw bits of it together in whatever order suits you.

I brought John Humphrys into this article, so I’ll let him have the last word on this, as he would if I was actually in conversation with him now. “It’s not like making soup,” insists John. “The cook has all the right ingredients, chops them up, boils them with some nice herbs and then tips it all into the liquidiser. Result: wonderful soup. Some people use the same approach with writing, hoping it will produce a similar result. It won’t.”

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1 Comment

  1. April J Harris on

    This is a wonderful, timely article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I must confess it did make me smile.

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