Dr. Ruth to talk about sex with newspaper reporters – and other ambiguous double entendres.

Clarity in writing is essential. Authors, writers and even editors edit, edit, and edit again to make sure every word, phrase, line, and every paragraph is as clear as it can be. Still, every once in awhile something gets through that makes the reader wonder what exactly the real meaning was the author meant to convey. Take the headline above for example:

Dr. Ruth to talk about sex with newspaper reporters.

This was supposedly a real headline in a newspaper, though I’ve yet to confirm it, but for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s real. What do you think the reporter was trying to get across? That (i) Dr. Ruth really had sex with newspaper reporters and she was going to talk about her experiences, or (ii), she was going to talk to reporters about sex?

My guess is the latter, but unless I was at that symposium or news conference, I wouldn’t know.

Other double entendres are a bit more obvious, for example:

Mixcon Inc. Makes Offer to Bash Co. Stockholders

Then there are those that really need clarification (and perhaps a few extra eyes to spot).

For example:

The officer said Monday he’ll retire after twenty years of service.

In this sentence, the meanings are many. Did the author mean:

(i) The officer will tell everyone this coming Monday he’ll retire after twenty years of service;
(ii) The officer said this past Monday he’ll retire after twenty years of service;
(iii) This past Monday, the offer said after twenty years of service, he’ll retire; or
(iv) After twenty years of service, the officer said Monday he’ll retire.

These are prime examples of misplaced modifiers and are more difficult to catch than misplaced modifying adverbs or adjectives. This is when great beta readers and meticulous editors earn every ounce of praise, virtual chocolates and big bucks (and I don’t mean the animal sort).

So, what is the lesson to be learned here? In short, be clever only when clever is called for. Use puns, but only for ‘punny’ stories, and watch out for ambiguity and those double entendres when a noun could be a verb and vice versa. Otherwise, your clever phrase may one day end up on a writer’s blog somewhere as an example of what NOT to do when writing.

Students Cook and Serve Grandparents – and other misplaced modifiers

Ah, the power of words. When used properly, they can evoke feelings of elation, sadness, and anger. When improperly strung together, they can make us grimace, wince, shake our heads or laugh. Such is the case with the actual newspaper headline featured as the title for this post.

As writers, authors and editors, we need to make sure what we write conveys what we mean. In the sample newspaper article, I think we can all be confident that there wasn’t a maniacal group of cannibalistic kids who literally cooked and served their grandparents as a meal, but that is what the words imply. Is there a name for this sort of writer blooper? Yep. They’re called ‘misplaced phrases’. Over the next few days, I’ll also talk about finding and correcting misplaced adjectives, adverbs, clauses, and dangling modifiers. Why? Because all of them can destroy your chances of getting that ‘A’ in class or getting published.

I have to admit, I am guilty of bloopers when I write. It is not unusual to find one or two in my first drafts as my primary focus is to get my thoughts out of my head and on paper (or computer). However, a good edit will usually find them all. But what exactly are misplaced phrases and how do we fix them?

You can usually identify a misplaced phrase because it makes a sentence sound awkward and usually creates a meaning that doesn’t make sense, for example:

The dealer sold the car to the buyer with the leather seats.

The problem with this sentence is that it contains a misplaced phrase that modifies the wrong noun. To fix the error and clarify the meaning, we need to put the phrase next to the noun it’s supposed to modify:

The dealer sold the car with the leather seats to the buyer.

The best way I personally find these misplaced phrases is to read my manuscript out loud. Sometimes the brain doesn’t pick up the error when we read in our heads because we tend to overlook words. Our mind also knows what our intentions were when we wrote the passage so we don’t ‘see’ the error. However, when you read the passage out loud, we hear the error the way readers ‘see’ the error. Try it. You’ll see what I mean. I actually found one this morning in a passage I wrote last night. Are you ready? Here is one of my very own personal writer bloopers:

“They just said it was going to snow again on the radio.”

Poor radio. I guess I’ll have to make sure I keep a hand shovel nearby to dig it out. 🙂

So, do you have any writer bloopers you’d like to share. What is your best editing method to find and correct them?