Blog Post

Grammar in the Era of Social Media

This morning, I read this sentence in a New York Times article covering Airbnb: "For nine years, Jill Bishop enjoyed the camaraderie of renting out her spare bedroom on Airbnb." I flinched, as I always do when I see incorrect placement of grammatical modification. As the sentence is constructed, it is unclear whether Jill rented out her spare bedroom THROUGH the Airbnb app or the bedroom was available, which is to say WAS LOCATED (physically) within the space of Airbnb. Grammatically, the sentence is poorly constructed, causing confusion in meaning. Unclear meaning is a consequence of misplacing modification, of failure to follow Rule #1 concerning placement of modifiers: place them as close as possible to what they are intended to modify. I believe that if one were to study within Times articles placement of modifiers one would discover that in a majority of pieces modifiers larger than one word, i.e. phrases and clauses, are simply placed at the end of sentences.  I find this convenient practice interesting and figure that end placement has recently become common not just because even otherwise well-educated reporters have had only a minimum of grammar instruction but because of the pressure under which they write today. Perhaps reporters have experienced work speedup as a consequence of having to compete with the speed of production of social media.

What's at issue here? Does misplaced modification matter? The regularity in which it can be found in the Times would seem to suggest that the paper's copy editors either do not catch it, or the writing standard has been updated as a priority has been placed on getting the story out, i.e. not getting scooped! I also am well aware that if many Times reporters and editors don't notice this specific error the likelihood is that readers don't see it either. So, perhaps I make much ado about nothing. Except, I wonder what the relationship is between syntactical complexity, sentence logic, and complexity of argument. Does a possible decrease or change in writers' attention to certain rules of Standard American English grammar suggest less complex logic? Does a lack of syntactical complexity and correctness support deep thinking? And is the reader's inability even to read syntactically complex sentences, to read both the ideas in a sentence and the way in which those ideas are constructed, taken for granted? Probably the answer to these questions is no, but, for me, there is still something disconcerting about the possibility both that I am expected not to notice errors in modification, and, more significantly, that by reading past such errors I am compelled to follow a reporter's logic. I am maybe overreacting to this matter, but in an age of fake news it seems appropriate, across the board, to question media standards.

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