Errors & Omissions by Guy Keleny: Left hanging by those troublesome participles

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The Independent Online

"Oh no!" I hear you exclaim. There is perhaps no more tiresome obsession among pedants than the hanging participle. But it really does matter. Here is Johann Hari on Wednesday, describing the fate of children whose mothers are sent to prison. "Many mothers arrive in prison distraught, explaining that there is nobody to pick up their kids from school. Living chaotic lives, in denial about the possibility of custody, their children are punished even more for their mothers' shoplifting or drug addiction."

"Oh no!" I hear you exclaim. There is perhaps no more tiresome obsession among pedants than the hanging participle. But it really does matter. Here is Johann Hari on Wednesday, describing the fate of children whose mothers are sent to prison. "Many mothers arrive in prison distraught, explaining that there is nobody to pick up their kids from school. Living chaotic lives, in denial about the possibility of custody, their children are punished even more for their mothers' shoplifting or drug addiction."

Now it is plainly the mothers who are living chaotic lives and are in denial about the possibility that they may be sent to jail. Hence they fail to make sensible arrangements for their children to be looked after in that eventuality. That is what the writer meant, but not what he wrote. For the present participle "living", after the manner of its kind, will attach itself to the nearest noun, especially if that noun is the subject of the main verb "are punished". That noun is "children". The possessive pronoun "their" (referring to the mothers) has nothing like the same pulling power. So the sentence means that the children live chaotic lives etc.

The dissonance between what the words are plainly trying to say and what they actually mean jangles painfully in the reader's mind.

Rank ignorance: We displayed our usual shaky grasp of military detail on Thursday when reporting on an inquest into the death of a non-commissioned officer from the Household Cavalry. In the headline, the man was called an officer, suggesting that he was a commissioned officer. The second paragraph of the report called him a corporal. All this confusion would have been cleared up if anybody involved with this story had known a simple but perhaps arcane fact: Corporal of Horse is a rank peculiar to the Household Cavalry, equivalent to a sergeant in other regiments. The unfortunate man appears to have been a corporal of horse in the Life Guards.

(Incidentally, The Daily Telegraph, the paper that is supposed to have military tradition running in its every vein, did little better, with vague references to "the Queen's Life Guard" and a "corporal of the horse". The new owners, when they arrive at Canary Wharf, are clearly going to have to start with a few exemplary courts martial.)

Metaphor soup: It has been a big week for mixed metaphors. On Monday, a business story about the recent upheavals at Marks & Spencer lurched from the shooting range to the poker table, reporting that "last week's bid was no more than a sighting shot, implying there was always the intention to up the ante". On Wednesday's opinion page, Michael Brown achieved a daring synthesis of chemistry and physics with "This certainly turned out to be the catalyst for allowing the UKIP campaign to gain momentum". Last Saturday, a news story began with this remarkable image: "They are the nascent standard-bearers for British poetry." You can just see them, emerging from the womb waving their little Union Flags.

Wonder-horses: A sport page reported on Wednesday: "While England trained at the Estadio Nacional yesterday, mounted police patrolled the wooden slopes overlooking the pitch." That should be "wooded slopes". Portuguese police horses are, no doubt, remarkable animals, but I don't believe even they can keep their footing on wooden slopes.

Banking secrets: On Wednesday, we reported the appearance before an employment tribunal of "a senior female banker". Perhaps there is an order of seniority among female bankers. But if not, that should have been "a female senior banker".

Cliché of the week: "An elderly woman had a lucky escape yesterday," we reported on Monday, "after an explosion razed her house to the ground, burying her under the rubble." "Raze" is derived from a Latin verb meaning to scrape (see also "razor"). It paints a picture of a structure being cut right down to ground level by some deliberate and systematic action, as when fortifications are levelled. "To the ground" is otiose. In this case, the house was merely destroyed by accident, and a photograph accompanying the story showed a pile of wreckage as high as a man - nowhere near ground level. At least we did not call the woman's escape miraculous.

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