February 05, 2006

What we talk about when we talk about things that most people never talk about

Rose was telling me about a copyediting-related interaction she'd seen at work: an article had a dangler in it (you know, like "Having gone to the store, milk turned out to be on sale for half price"), which was pointed out to the editor, who suggested a change which made the dangler worse, and then suggested another change that also didn't fix it.

This made me wonder if people who are not attuned to grammar are just hearing gibberish when we copy editors are telling them about such things. And thus I present a short playlet.

(We see an office, in which a COPY EDITOR -- bearing a stack of page proofs -- approaches a REGULAR EDITOR at his desk.)

COPY EDITOR: This sentence is a floopy.


COPY EDITOR: You know, a floopy. We need to rewrite it.

REGULAR EDITOR: Ummmmmmm...sure. How about this? (He types something into his text editor and shows it to the COPY EDITOR.)

COPY EDITOR: No, that's still a floopy.

REGULAR EDITOR (changing a few words): Or this? I like this better, actually.

COPY EDITOR: Floopy. Sorry.

REGULAR EDITOR: And the other sentences in the article aren't floopies.


REGULAR EDITOR (pointing to his screen): But that one is.


REGULAR EDITOR (throwing up his hands): Okay, well, just...make it not be a floopy! Please.

COPY EDITOR: As you wish.

(The COPY EDITOR exits. The REGULAR EDITOR stares at his screen for a long time, a searching expression in his eyes. Finally he shakes his head and returns to what he was originally working on. Blackout.)

Posted by Francis at 07:40 AM

Yes, I've tried to explain this to editors, too, and they've just looked at me like I'm speaking Finnish--"But D__, this man's legs are wearing a Pendleton shirt!" "How's that?" This, from a rather bad novel by a sweet author who clearly thought that a dangling modifier was some sort of literary device: he used one to introduce each change of scene in the book.

But your dialogue couldn't have happened at that office, because the publisher didn't feel that fiction needed to be copyedited in the first place. A waste of money. I just happened to notice the dangly bits while I was typesetting it.

Posted by: I. at February 5, 2006 10:08 AM

In my experience, some understand it, others don't. Quite a few understand the principles involved, but don't know the names: dangling modifier, transitive vs. intransitive verb, appositive, conditional, subjunctive, past perfect, et cetera.

By the way, O previous commenter, if by chance you're not aware that "dangly bits" is an established idiomatic phrase, you should probably look it up. If you already know the phrase and are just having fun, well, good on you.

Posted by: Teresa Nielsen Hayden at February 5, 2006 03:13 PM

I was just talking to someone about this after church. Not all the "contemporary" songwriters understand such things, and so we get this for example:

Taking my sin, my cross, my shame,
Rising again, I bless your name

Which makes me shudder every time.

Posted by: marcy at February 5, 2006 04:37 PM

ahh, Raymond Carver!

Posted by: kristine at February 5, 2006 04:38 PM

After reading this entry, I no longer feel like such a nutcase for having a discussion with my husband yesterday about whether an ort was larger than an eft, and if so, how many orts were necessary to create an eft-sized mound.

Wait, I take that back. I am a nutcase, but at least I have found my fellow nutcases.

Posted by: Debby at February 5, 2006 05:46 PM

Marcy, I'm sorry about my ignorance, but I don't get what's grammatically incorrect in those lyrics.

I do think part of the content is wrong - the singer should be leaving his sin behind rather than taking it. He would have to carry his cross, of course. His shame - I think he could drop that as soon as he was forgiven.

Posted by: Eileen at February 5, 2006 09:13 PM

O esteemed subsequent commenter, be assured that I know what dangly bits are.

And I agree that many clever people, editors and otherwise, are able to spot such problems despite not knowing what they're called. It's just that I rarely seem to work with those people. Rather, I get the ones who can't see a howler even when it's pointed out to them.

And don't even get me started on restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses. Why is that such a difficult concept? For editors?!?

Off to look up orts and efts . . .

Posted by: I. at February 5, 2006 09:13 PM

I read the lyrics that Marcy quoted as meaning "You take my sin, my cross, and my shame, and you rise again; I bless your name," which means that everything before the final clause should be pointing to "you" instead of "I" as it does.

This may be the most we have ever talked about Jesus here at Heaneyland.

Posted by: Francis at February 6, 2006 01:02 AM

I may have the wrong information here, but didn't Jesus die for our dangling modifiers?

Posted by: Tom at February 6, 2006 11:33 AM

Jesus was a dangling modifier (of behavior).

Posted by: Francis at February 6, 2006 11:59 AM

Yes, Francis' interpretation is right.

I wonder what a holy tango Jesus poem would be like... personally I can't think of any good anagrams from Jesus even if you include Christ.

Is riches just

is the best I could do...

Posted by: marcy at February 6, 2006 03:34 PM

Thank you, Francis and Marcy! I get it now.

Clicking on the comments, your posts cleared it up.

Posted by: Eileen at February 6, 2006 08:57 PM

In my copyediting job, I think that my coworkers think that I am capricious and unjust--that I make up rules that have no purpose or justification and impose them with my iron text editing fist. You'd think that if one regularly writes ad copy, for instance, for InFocus (an electronics brand), one would eventually stop writing about "In Focus" and "Infocus." But you would be wrong.

Posted by: meestagoat at February 6, 2006 10:15 PM

Hey Francis, you got linked at LL!


Posted by: Erin at February 7, 2006 09:48 AM

O copyeditors (or copy editors), my copyeditors (or copy editors)! Let us not build houses of glass! Did Rose really tell you about "an copyediting-related interaction?" I will chalk this up to typographical error on the writer's part and odd politeness on the part of readers (for surely no one labors under the misconception that in English the choice of "a" over "an" is governed by the noun to which the article refers, regardless of intervening adjectives).

Posted by: Bobo at February 8, 2006 08:11 PM

Were I to post an typo-riddled entry about how I never make typos, that would be an example of building a glass house and then throwing stones, yes? Anyway, thanks for alerting me to the error in a fashion not saddled with any odd politeness.

Posted by: Francis at February 8, 2006 10:19 PM

Can I just interject to say that I don't think the lyric is an error. It may not scan exactly, but (1) in context (i.e., Christian music) there is no doubt that the referent is Jesus, not the speaker and (2) I think lyrics should get more leeway for non-standard structure than magazine writing.

Posted by: Charles at February 9, 2006 12:25 PM

First, whoever replies, *please* email me, as I'm sure I'll forget to check this. Also, I hope it's not bad that I'm reviving such an old thread, but I found it on Google, searching for this song.

Second, I can't remember the name of this song.

Finally, and mainly, I don't see (grammatically) how Jesus is understood to be the one taking our sin, crosses, and shame, or especially how He's understood to be the One rising again. I agree that's the way things are in reality, and what the song ought to be saying, but I don't see how the words mean Jesus is the One doing these things.

Posted by: DonutGuy at June 25, 2006 09:55 PM

Ok, I have always taken it as this: “taking my sin my cross my shame, rising again” is talking about what Jesus did on the cross… He took our sin, He took our cross (our burdens), He took our shame of being helpless sinners and He rose again. In that aspect, “I bless his name”.


Read Luke... you’ll find the story there.

Posted by: Emily Levinson at January 12, 2007 08:40 PM

Emily, Emily - we know what the lyric writer MEANT to say (and we know what it says in Luke), the point being made here is that there is only one verb subject named in the verse, and it isn't Jesus, it's "I". THe words Jesus, or "you" (meaning Jesus) do not appear. So according to the rules of English grammar, the subject of the sentence who is "taking" and "rising" has to be "I". The lyric writer has made a grammatical error, and someone who came to that song without knowing anything about Christianity would not be able to guess what she/he really meant.

Posted by: Martin Tabellion at February 5, 2007 12:23 PM

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that people mainly find this page nowadays by searching for hymn lyrics and not by searching for the word "floopy".

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