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Floating modifiers

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The write word paints a thousand pictures.
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Hi Everyone,

I just ended up in an argument with the spouse over a line from a short story we were reading and wondered what everyone thought about the grammatical  issue. The line was:

I directed my attention to the Marquis, who stood drinking wine and chatting with the Whitsundays beneath a huge full-length portrait of our late Queen, suitably framed in black crepe.

Now to me it was perfectly obvious that it was the portrait and not the Queen that was framed in black crepe, but my spouse took exception to the sentence because the modifying phrase was not directly adjacent to the noun it was modifying, and it could mean the Queen was framed in black crepe.

I know I may be playing fast and loose with the grammar gods, but sometimes a sentence just flows better in a certain order even if the modifier is not in direct contact with its noun. I think if the words make it clear (to me you wouldn't be framing a Queen) it's acceptable.

What are your views?

Rainchains  :horse2


#1 - July 07, 2016, 10:24 PM

\I directed my attention to the Marquis, who stood drinking wine and chatting with the Whitsundays beneath a huge full-length portrait of our late Queen, suitably framed in black crepe.

Now to me it was perfectly obvious that it was the portrait and not the Queen that was framed in black crepe, but my spouse took exception to the sentence because the modifying phrase was not directly adjacent to the noun it was modifying, and it could mean the Queen was framed in black crepe.

I know I may be playing fast and loose with the grammar gods, but sometimes a sentence just flows better in a certain order even if the modifier is not in direct contact with its noun. I think if the words make it clear (to me you wouldn't be framing a Queen) it's acceptable.

I used to have a kids' humor book about signs and news ads with the wrong floating modifiers.  ("Vase previously owned by lady, slightly cracked.")
Not to mention the old Marx Brothers line of "We took pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed yet."

Keeping a watch on modifiers is one good way of avoiding embarrassment.
#2 - July 07, 2016, 11:25 PM
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In that sentence, it could mean the Marquis was suitably framed in black crepe. ::-)

Yes, I try to look out for dangling and otherwise misplaced modifiers in my writing, and if the construction is awkward, rewrite the sentence. Clarity of prose is important to me, even if I don't always achieve it.
#3 - July 08, 2016, 05:09 AM
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I agree with the husband. It also detracts from the story by taking you out of the story because of how it's written. If it was written that the queen was framed because the writer liked the flow...well, rewrite the sentence (and possibly the preceding paragraph/s) so it flows but also reflects the intention.

 
#4 - July 08, 2016, 07:20 AM
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Einstein.

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Because of the comma, I'd say the marquis is being modified. If there was no comma, then the queen would be.

I always delete the parts set off by commas to see if I'm modifying the right thing.


I directed my attention to the Marquis, who stood drinking wine and chatting with the Whitsundays beneath a huge full-length portrait of our late Queen, suitably framed in black crepe.

Yep, the marquis is suitably framed, not the queen.

Even though I agree that it is easier on the reader to place the modifier in close proximity to the thing being modified, to me the sentence is fine as written.
#5 - July 08, 2016, 05:16 PM

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I like the comma trick to check on where the modifier seems to be directed.  I'll use that when I work on my own revisions.

Thanks

I think my husband knew what was being framed. He just wanted to micro dissect the story. Unless I'm revising or doing line edit critiques, I try to just roll with the author when reading for pleasure.

rainchains  :horse2
#6 - July 08, 2016, 06:11 PM

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I directed my attention to the Marquis, who stood drinking wine and chatting with the Whitsundays beneath a huge full-length portrait of our late Queen, suitably framed in black crepe.
The comma placed before the modifier suitably framed in black crepe makes explicit the referring to the entire compound noun portrait of our late Queen, not to the Queen as shown in the portrait. Thus the sentence is correct in expressing a crepe-framed portrait, not a portrait of a late monarch herself framed in crepe.

But those with a slippery grasp on how actively punctuation takes a role in our heavily syntax-dependent English may prefer simpler, more direct phrasing. Not as smooth but somewhat clearer would be , which was suitably framed in black crepe. or possibly , the frame of which was suitably draped in/with black crepe. or even the daring , which frame was suitably draped in/with black crepe.

I disagree with the proposition that the marquis was being framed. The "syntactical distance" is sufficient to have left him in the dust, such that the modifier points to something closer.

Maybe just rewrite the sentence to satisfy all the critics?
#7 - July 09, 2016, 07:31 AM
« Last Edit: July 09, 2016, 07:34 AM by A. S. Templeton »
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