Cross examination

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Here's how not to place a temporal modifier. See if you readily understand this sentence (from the UK's Daily Mirror) on first reading:

[H]e callously instructed his lawyers to add to her family's pain by implying the 13-year-old ran away because she was unhappy at home during days of cross examination.

So this poor 13-year-old girl was undergoing day-long cross examinations in her home? That certainly would make a teenager inclined to run away.

The sentence will be understood almost (but not quite) instantly by UK readers (though even they will have a momentary blip as the ill-placed temporal modifier comes up), but some US readers will momentarily think it actually does refer to a domestic cross-examination incident (and then will probably correct their interpretation when reflecting on the presence of the word lawyers).

The context is an article about an unpleasant murder case in England. The face of Levi Bellfield, a fat-faced brutal psychopath who used to work as a bouncer, has been staring out at British newspaper readers from all the tabloids. He has just become the first criminal in Britain ever to be sentenced to a second whole-life no-parole term of imprisonment (he was already in prison for murdering two girls when the case was finally made that he had also killed a girl named Milly Dowler, and for that too he was sentenced to go to prison and never be released).

He has never admitted to anything, and in his defense has been blaming everyone including Milly Dowler's distraught parents, who were cruelly grilled over several days. (One stage of the cross examination involved forcing the father to admit in court that his family had discovered that he owned a stash of bondage porn.) The idea was to try to establish that she was an unhappy girl in a dysfunctional home who ran away and disappeared, and it was all the parents' fault that she ran away and he had nothing to do with it.

The papers today are full of hostility toward the barrister who conducted the cross examination and the court that permitted it. (See this law blog post if you'd like to read a presentation of the view that the court was absolutely right to permit it; thanks to John Cowan for pointing it out to me.) The Daily Mirror is summarizing, and should have constructed its sentence this way:

He callously instructed his lawyers to add to her family's pain by implying, during days of cross examination, that the 13-year-old ran away because she was unhappy at home.

This touches on what William Strunk was getting at in his ignorant and misguided booklet The Elements of Style (later revised and worsened by E. B. White) when he asserted:

The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. The writer must therefore, so far as possible, bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.

(If it is news to you that I do not care for Strunk's opus, catch up with this article or this one, or browse among these posts or these more recent ones.)

Strunk's statement is hopeless as a description of what you have to do, as its own structure makes clear. Heidi Harley noted here on Language Log that the section has only 11 sentences (excluding the examples), and three of them (27\%) directly violate the rule that the section affirms.

It is not true that good writers always keep words together if they are related. How could it be? The words what and for are intimately related in a sentence like Tell me what the hell you imagine anyone would want to do that for — in the abbreviated question What for? the two words function together semantically to mean "why". But the syntax of English demands that they be widely separated, because in an open interrogative clause the operative interrogative phrase has to be placed at the beginning of the whole interrogative clause. (And if you seriously think that *Tell me for what the hell you imagine anyone would want to do that, which does keep the two words together, is an improvement in style, I can only say that you need to take another writing course, only not with the same instructor as the last one.)

No, there is no merit in a blanket assertion that if a group of words "are related" (say, if they clearly function together semantically) they must be placed together in the sentence. But what is true is that if placing a temporal modifier at the end of a clause would create the possibility of a highly distracting ambiguity, then it would be better to place it closer to (preferably right beside) the verb whose time reference is being modified.

In the sentence from the Mirror there are at least five verb uses that could in principle be temporally modified by the preposition phrase headed by during: Did Bellfield instruct his defense counsel during days of cross examination? Or was it adding to Milly's family's pain that happened during days of cross examination? Or was it the implying that occurred during days of cross examination? Or did Milly run away during days of cross examination? Or was she unhappy at home during days of cross examination? The during phrase follows all of the verbs in question, and in principle could modify any of them.

Sure, most of these interpretations involve ridiculous scenarios, so they can be dismissed. But each such dismissal takes effort and wastes a few CPU cycles of neuronal activity. What the Mirror is talking about is implying things during days of cross examination. Implying is neither the first verb in the whole sentence (the verb of the main clause is instructed) nor the last (she was unhappy at home is the last and closest clause). The during phrase modifies neither of those, and is nowhere near the verb it is supposed to modify. You actually need to have heard the news in the UK today in order to know where to fit the during phrase into the semantics appropriately.

It's a very bad piece of writing, a terrible sentence to have committed to print, even though it is grammatically well formed, and with a moment of extra interpretive effort it can be understood. What I hate about The Elements of Style is not that it tries in its pathetic way to warn budding writers against such writing, but that it does such a rotten, incompetent, grammatically clueless job of it.

[Comments are closed because I am just so worried that you might put a modifier in the wrong place.]

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