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Misplaced Modifiers

It started with an e-mail message from Tony Nelson-Smith, who pointed out that New Scientist magazine had referred to a Health and Safety information sheet on bouncy castles with the title inflatable children’s play equipment. He said, “This reminded me of two potentially misleading items from my own experience: a work bucket labelled black plasterer’s bucket (what do Caucasian plasterers use?) and extra thick child wipes (which mother is going to buy them and thus admit that her child is subnormal?)”.

Once your mind is attuned to such ill-placed or incorrectly punctuated modifying words, the damn things pop out at every turn. My wife found her favourite example in an advertisement, also in New Scientist, which asked for a brown fat scientist (as with many examples, a hyphen would have helped). Mr Nelson-Smith and I asked for examples from subscribers.

Lots of people mentioned the common North American highway caution sign, Slow Children Playing. Joe and Mary Gilliland pointed out that it raised the question, “where do intelligent children play?” for which the answer had to be, “not in the street”. Jim Blue felt it implied that “faster children can fend for themselves”. Terri Davies mentioned the common British equivalent of: Slow Children Crossing, which reminds me of the old P G Wodehouse gag about “the pace that kills” in truth being a quiet amble across a busy street. Still on roadside signs: in Sydney, Australia, Alan Jeary travels to work each day past one that exhorts: Drive in Manure.

Some examples were old enough for me to have to brush the cobwebs off before reading them. In particular, Mike Young reminded me of the village in Essex called Ugley, one of whose organisations, of long repute, is the Ugley Women’s Institute. Its members became so annoyed with all the witticisms that a little while ago they changed its name to “The Women’s Institute (Ugley branch)”. A similar problem besets another branch, at Loose, near Maidstone in Kent (though this only works in writing, since the village name is pronounced as looz). There’s also a suburb of Bradford that really does have an Idle Working Man’s Institute.

Jeanne Goodman e-mailed this: “One of our book reps told us a story I’ve never forgotten. He was in The Intimate Bookshop and they called for him over the loudspeaker, ‘Will the little brown man please come to the office,’ shocking the customers”. He was, of course the representative of the publishers Little Brown. Richard Moore wrote: “Listening to a radio station here in Michigan, the host said to check Michigan’s Home For the Ageing Website. I didn’t know the internet was that old!”

One example was sadly topical. Following the anthrax attacks in the US, Don Paterson found that the San Mateo County Times’ online edition had the headline: County workers to get suspicious mail training. As he said, “It’s a shame they couldn’t afford a reputable training programme”.

Robert Aquilina said that “science produces a plethora of these, but my favorite for a long time has been the job, again advertised in the New Scientist, of incoherent radiation scientist”. (My favourite from that magazine is the repeated request for a synthetic organic chemist — why not hire a natural one?). Earl Padfield found another technical instance in a corporate recruiting brochure for a large oil company, which solicited applicants to be a crude oil man (one subscriber subsequently described this, perhaps harshly, as a pleonasm).

Advertisements can raise different problems. Richard English from the UK mentioned that “An advertisement on the UKHRD board recently asked for a Young Witness Service Training Officer. The post was, of course, for a training officer for the Young Witness Service. It provoked criticism from those who thought it was ageist”. Another British subscriber, John Nurick, said: “My favourite, from the Society supplement to the Guardian about 1992, is the council that wanted a black arts officer. Alas, it wasn’t the black arts but the arts of black people”. A potentially more serious example of this problem, remembered by Alan Harrison and Fran Acheson, was a court report in the same newspaper about a rape said to have been committed by a black cab driver. This provoked angry reactions from readers who felt it unnecessarily revealed the ethnic origin of an offender, when it really referred to the driver of a London black cab.

There were lots of food-related examples. Alison Crosland wrote: “During a visit to the Cafe du Jardin restaurant in Covent Garden, London, on Friday evening I was almost tempted to try the menu’s seared diver caught scallops. However, while I will eat scallops, I do not approve of cruelty to divers in catching them”. This came from Peter Ingerman: “I have a little card that was clipped to a menu to inform browsers of the day’s special culinary delights. It read Our special one half Swedish pan fried chicken. I still have difficulty imagining a Swedish chicken in half of a fried pan, but perhaps there are others with better skills at mental images?”. Mark Mallett recently heard of The All-American Cowboy Cookbook, which raises an interesting image. Harry Campbell found a reference in the Glasgow Herald last Christmas to a seasonal offer from the Safeway supermarket chain of outdoor-reared pork chipolatas.

But I must give the palm to Dennis Whitehead. He was perusing a hospital supplies catalogue recently and found listed a large-bottomed patient commode.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 10 Nov 2001