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English affords many opportunities for you to make a fool of yourself | COMMENTARY

The Associated Press did this to me this morning with my first swallow of coffee: President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty to charges he ripped off donors to an online funding scheme to build a southern border wall in federal court Thursday.

You’d think that building a border wall in federal court would be unlikely to attract even the most gullible of marks.

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And this on the same day:

Delta has banned the Navy SEAL who killed Osama Bin Laden for refusing to wear a mask.

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Death for refusing to wear a mask strikes one as an outré punishment.

For good measure, one from my archive of defective sentences:

The thing that first caught my eye was a large silver cup that Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece.

Never having skated on a mantelpiece myself, I can only image the prowess involved.

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All right, that English depends so much on word order has treacherous consequences, particularly with prepositional phrases, which, functioning like adjectives or adverbs, tend to be drawn to the closest noun or verb. The potential for ambiguity, or just silliness, is vast.

Take a little care about where you place your prepositional phrases.

That AP sentence, rendered in standard English rather than journalese would still be a little clunky, but not ridiculous: Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, pleaded not guilty Thursday in federal court to charges that he ripped off donors to an online funding scheme to build a southern border wall.

For the Delta headline: For his refusal to wear a mask, Delta has banned the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden.

And for sure-footed Charles:

The first thing on the mantelpiece that caught my eye was a large silver cup Charles had won for skating.

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