Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bad Sentence III: The Editing

I pulled this from the Letters and Commentary section of Monday's Star Bulletin, and it's a mess. Frankenstein's monster was put together less randomly. There's nothing contextual here, by the way. These are the opening sentences of the letter. =(

“As a disabled person in a wheelchair with a converted van, has anyone given any thought to the value the Superferry can bring? If we wanted to travel to Maui or Kaua'i for business or vacation, we would have a very costly trip renting a travel wheelchair so that it can fit in a regular van. We are a family of six.”

The introductory phrase that starts off the first sentence is—you know, this one is so out there I'm not even sure it's a misplaced modifier. It actually feels like it's part of a completely separate sentence. Pronouns are a mess throughout. Oh, and the independent clause in the second sentence seems to imply that the author and his family are going on an expensive trip in order to rent a wheelchair. And I'm not sure why “it can fit in a regular van” is set up with a subordinating conjunction. I think the author meant it to be a restrictive clause modifying “travel wheelchair.” Also, does mentioning that his is a family of six add anything useful to the mix?

Well, let's see what we can do...
“Has anyone given thought to the benefits the Superferry could bring about? I am wheelchair-bound and own a van converted to accommodate my disability. If I wanted to travel to Maui or Kaua'i now, I would have to pay the added cost of renting a travel wheelchair that can fit in a regular van.”

1 comment:

Pat said...

You did a very good job with both your analysis and your solution, Mitch. Here are some comments:

1. As a disabled person in a wheelchair with a converted van doesn't modify anything in the sentence; it's therefore not a misplaced modifier, but a dangling modifier. That is, it is dangling from the sentence because what it should modify has failed to appear.

Also, you did a great job of fixing the awkwardness of a wheelchair with a converted van :)

2. You're right about the pronouns. This problem arises because the writer is confused about person: should he or she be writing in first person singular, first person plural, or second person? Getting from "As a disabled person" to "we are a family of six" is a pretty wild ride.

The writer is trying to do three things at once: (1) explain the situation of the I, (2) explain the situation of the we, and (3) address the reader (the anyone). Because writers such as this one don't write as much as they should, they get caught in such dilemmas easily. As you point out, separating these fighting siamese triplets is the solution.

3. Here is another way to look at the text. Perhaps the writer is trying to set up an argument—a syllogism, we might say—that can be won simply by pointing out the obvious. Starting with a simple statement instead of a rhetorical question would be one way to structure the argument:

As a disabled person, I wonder if anyone has given thought to the benefits the Superferry might have for the disabled.

As you can see, the subject has shifted from anyone to I with this change. The writer will have to decide if this shift in subject—and the consequent shift in tone—is desirable, of course.

4. I really liked what you said about it can fit in a regular van; you're right about the subordinating conjunction and the restrictive clause. The only thing I might do with your suggested text is change can to could so that the tense would be consistent with would have to pay.

5. Mentioning the family size may be relevant if (a) the writer always or frequently travels with his family and (b) the family has to rent a van that can accommodate both a large group and a travel wheelchair. Perhaps something like this could be added to what you came up with:

And if I brought my family of five with me, it would be even more costly to rent a vehicle than to bring my van over on the ferry.