Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Another example of poor syntax

The last post had an extreme example of poor sentence structure, but I find lesser errors with syntax are one of the primary drivers of "bad writing." Here's an example that comes from a popular book:

"The room was cut in half by a long counter, cluttered with wire baskets full of papers and brightly colored flyers taped to its front."

As worded, "full of papers and brightly colored flyers" implies that the flyers are in the basket, not taped to the front as the author intends. I believe "taped to its front" is a dangling participle...anyone want to give a formal ruling?

Also, "wire baskets" is plural but then is switched to a singular "its" and although you can discern the intended meaning, it's just sloppy. This has nothing to do with the story, and for many readers this level of detail flies below radar. But for those of us who write and revise and constantly try to turn out the perfect sentence, this burns like lemon juice on a paper cut, or a bad analogy.

20 comments:

scott g.f. bailey said...

The real problem is that "room" is the subject of the sentence, so you have a "dangling modifier" here; everything from "cluttered" to the end of the sentence is presumed to apply to "room," not to "counter." So it's a mess. The sentence should either have "that was" inserted before "cluttered," or it should be rewritten, maybe broken into two sentences. What the author intends is clear, but too much stuff like this slowly pushes the reader out of the story, I think.

Rick Daley said...

I was close with the dangling participle, good call on relating it to room rather than the baskets. You da man.

Lady Glamis said...

Yes, Scott is correct in pinpointing the main problem of the sentence. I'm curious as to what book that is from.

scott g.f. bailey said...

I learned about dangling modifiers when my favorite reader/editor pointed out several in my manuscript. Darn her smarts.

Rick Daley said...

I'll give you all one guess as to what book this is from. It is quite popular these days.

scott g.f. bailey said...

One guess for all of us? That's hardly fair. Twilight?

Vodka Mom said...

anything dangling often offends me. on too many levels to mention.


got that?

Rick Daley said...

What's not fair about a direct hit?

You got it. That gem came from page 13 of TWILIGHT. My wife read the series and loved it. She didn't understand why Stephen King and others called Stephanie Meyer a bad writer.

When I read Twilight I used that sentence as an example for her.

I read the first book, but have no urge to read any further into the series. Not because of poor syntax or the abundance of adverbs; I just don't care about Bella as a character. She is too bland and depressing for me.

I don't begrudge Ms. Meyer her success, or her fans their interest in the series. It's just not my cup o' tea.

Rick Daley said...

Deb...you, offended?

THAT I find hard to believe.

scott g.f. bailey said...

I was actually kidding when I guessed Twilight. The excerpts I've seen elsewhere were much worse. But people wants their entertainments, so who are we to stops them? Nobodys, that's whom.

Laura Martone said...

I have to admit... I read all four of the TWILIGHT books - but only because my stepmom lent me two of them, and all four took me a week to read. If they had wasted more time than that, I would've stopped.

I hate to admit that I fell for peer pressure, but I wanted to know what all the hype was about. Also, I don't think it's fair to criticize something, unless you've read, watched, or listened to all of it. Now that I've read all four books, I can say without guilt that they're fairly ridiculous.

But as to bad syntax, I actually think it affects more than just writers reading bad writing. Non-writers are often affected, too - albeit often in a subliminal way that, for an instant, makes them stumble out of the story - they're just not sure why.

Rick Daley said...

Scott,

I remember this one because I pointed it out to my wife. It was not a lone gunman, though, that's for sure.

Laura,

I read TWILIGHT after reading hundreds of comments on Nathan Bransford's blog debating its merits and bashing its quality. My wife read all four books faster than I've ever seen her read anything else. She would be within 50 pages of finishing and go out and by the next one so she wouldn't skip a beat. The mix of her love and the ire of so many others made me curious.

I didn't hate it (although I did hate the movie, it was terrible on many levels). I just don't feel enough attachment to the characters to keep reading. My wife said series gets better, and someday I may find out if I agree with her, but for now I have other books on my preferred reading list.

scott g.f. bailey said...

Laura: I read all seven Harry Potter books for the same reason, to see what the fuss was all about. They were entertaining while I was reading them, but I've discovered that by now I've forgotten almost everything about them except the most basic things. They just didn't stick with me.

I don't think you have to sit through the entire 4 books of Twilight (or anything else) to say you don't like them if what you've read already is off-putting.

Laurel said...

I loved the Twilight books and the Harry Potter books and feel sort of embarrassed to admit it.

All of my friends felt the same way about the Twilight books and more than one of them states their affection followed closely with "but they weren't very well written."

She wrote the first one really quickly and primarily for her own entertainment and just got so excited about it she submitted it and got really lucky.

I wouldn't recommend anyone gamble submitting a great story with sub-par writing but Allison Brennan did a post not too long ago about what sells a book and her conclusion is that ultimately the story trumps everything. I think that's what happened with Twilight. Obviously more appealing to girls but we got sucked in (sorry for the bad pun) to the story enough to either ignore or not even recognize the examples of sloppy writing.

The one that still sticks with me is "dust moats." Any copy editor should have caught that.

Rick Daley said...

Laurel,

I haven't read harry Potter yet but I will one day.

Don't be embarrassed for what you like. We are all entitled to our opinions. In general I like to eat healthy, but I still love junk food and fast food. Reading can be the same way. Sometimes we need something as an escape mechanism. A compelling story can do that. As long as the writing does not completely hinder the story, that is. While Twilight has issues, it isn't THAT bad...

Personally, I wasn't attracted to Bella. She was too whiny, clumsy, and sighed every other time she spoke. to me, she didn't have any redeeming qualities, and obsession with Edward's beauty didn't turn me on. But then again, I'm as far from the target audience as you can get, I think.

Laurel said...

My biggest objection to Bella was that she was basically a foil. And she fainted. A lot. Seriously? All the good girlie characteristics went to Alice in the first book.

She got better through the books, showed some gumption and spunk.

Laura Martone said...

Rick & Scott - If I hadn't enjoyed some aspects of the TWILIGHT books, I wouldn't have read ALL of them. I agree that you don't have to experience the entirety of something to be able to criticize/critique it. I just found the romantic relationship at the heart of the books a bit ridiculous. Heck, I was rooting for Jacob the werewolf. Although I don't consider myself a TWITARD, I'm not embarrassed to say that they weren't the worst books I've ever read (but, yes, the movie was terrible - no chemistry between the leads - and the NEW MOON trailer looks equally awful).

Now, as for Harry Potter, that's another matter. Is J.K. Rowling the best writer ever? No! But I do love her series - and many characters (such as Sirius and Lupin) have definitely stayed with me. I even like the movies, too - though I've often liked the books better. The only book I've objected to is the last one. After investing my time in the entire series, I was hoping for more of a climax... and I was appalled that important characters died "off-screen" - what a rip-off! Also, I can't believe that TWO movies are being made from it. Didn't they learn anything from KILL BILL I & II (which so could have been one flick)?

Rick Daley said...

I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books yet. I saw the first movie and liked it.

TWITARD- That's funny!

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