Misplaced modifier

 

Q:

I hope the members of The Grammar Exchange will comment on the following question, which appeared recently on the CNN site:

Do you agree with New York's decision to ban handheld cell phones while driving?

Is this construction both common and generally acceptable? Or is it "newspaperese" and acceptable in only the way that shortened headlines are acceptable? The meaning is perfectly clear although the adverbial "while driving" doesn't have a properly stated referent. I'm more concerned, however, with the accuracy, if accuracy is still a virtue, of the object noun phrase of the verbal "to ban." It is, in fact, THE USE of the phones that's banned, not the phones themselves. Have I been teaching English too long? Have I been out of the USA too long?

Philip Franklin
[email protected]

A:

The Grammar Exchange objects to this sentence for the same reasons that the writer does.

First, "while driving" appears to describe the "cell phones," which is illogical. Second, indeed the object should be "the use of handheld cell phones."

Instead, consider these suggestions:

Do you agree with New York抯 decision to ban the use of handheld cell phones by drivers behind the wheel?

Do you agree with the decision of the New York legislature made to prohibit drivers from using cell phones while driving?

Do you agree with New York抯 decision to ban the use of handheld cell phones by a driver in a moving vehicle?

All of these sentences seem a bit unwieldy and are probably too long for a face-to-face interview or even a viewers?poll that CNN might conduct. If the sentence appears in a context in which both the speaker and the listener(s) already know what the decision is, then the question could be simply: "Do you agree with this decision?" However, as the sentence appeared on CNN, "newspaperese" has constructed a comfortably sized sentence, but has sacrificed accuracy.

Rachel


A:

I would revise:

Do you agree with New York抯 decision to ban handheld cell phones while driving?

like this:

Do you agree with New York抯 decision to ban drivers' use of handheld cell phones while driving?

It is important to include that the prohibition is against particular cell phones, the handheld ones, and that the prohibition is during a particular activity, driving. That information is vital to the message about the restriction.

Dana Cooper
[email protected]

(To see another comment on this topic, click here.)

Return to the Key Word Index