Friday, October 13, 2006

One of the joys of editing ...

… is finding a real howler in a venue where excellent editing is the rule.

By that I mean that it’s just tedious to slog through badly written, badly edited prose that you are nonetheless required to read for some bureaucratic or civic reason but that you have no control over.

And there is surely a sense of pride in turning a sow’s ear of a manuscript into a silk purse of a finished book.

But there is real glee, for me at least, in finally, after a long and busy week, stealing a few minutes with The New Yorker—certainly one of the best edited weeklies around—and coming to this sentence in a piece by Malcom Gladwell: “A woman has fled an abusive relationship with her infant son and is now living in a port town.” (He’s describing a film plot; these are not real people. Relax.)

Well, I’m easily amused, I guess. Correcting the above sentence is left as an exercise for the reader.


Anonymous said...

I don't see an error there. Have you never had children?

Dick Margulis said...


Yes, I've had children. I can't imagine being in an abusive relationship with an infant, though, let alone fleeing it. Generally, it's the victim who flees abuse, not the perpetrator; and an infant can hardly abuse its mother.

Now do you see the problem?


Ed said...

I see the problem, but I'm not sure how best to correct it.

A woman flees with her infant son from an abusive relationship ...


Dick Margulis said...


That's certainly one way (except you inadvertently changed the tense). I think the least obtrusive fix would be simply to add commas around the prepositional phrase:

"A woman has fled an abusive relationship, with her infant son, and is now ..."


"A woman, with her infant son, has fled an abusive relationship ..."

However, that has its own awkwardness that the author might rightly object to.

The problem is that without the commas the prepositional phrase gloms onto (that's the technical term) the nearest antecedent noun, which, in this case, is "relationship." That's just the way English works.

Setting the phrase off with commas breaks that connection and allows the reader to come to the intended logical conclusion that the phrase modifies the verb.