This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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01 June 2012

Watch those modifiers!

In English, word order is crucial to meaning.

Here's an important tip for clear writing: if something you write changes the meaning of something else, keep the two things together. When you don't, you're inviting confusion and frequently unexpected hilarity. Take, for example, the sentence:
I was introduced to my wife while travelling through a mutual friend.
Or this example, from Strunk and White:
Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
I found one of my favourites in a valuation report:
Off the kitchen, there is a small porch with a sink, through which there is access to the garage.
Be particularly careful with words like 'only' and 'almost'. 'I'm sad because my only brother has died' is by no means the same thing as 'I'm sad because my brother has only died'.

In Johnson today, they've posted on a misplaced "ex"
THE Associated Press reported yesterday that
The former top media adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron was detained Wednesday on suspicion of perjury in the trial of a flamboyant ex-Scottish lawmaker -- the latest case tied to allegations of wrongdoing by British tabloid newspapers.
Who's that? Ex-what?
Andy Coulson, 44, was detained by Scottish police at his home in London over an accusation related to a high-profile case at Glasgow's High Court, when politician Tommy Sheridan was himself convicted of offering a false account after he successfully sued the now-defunct News of The World tabloid over its claim that he was embroiled in a sex-and-drugs scandal.
Tommy Sheridan's Wikipedia page details much of his "flamboyant" career, but nothing about having renounced his Scottish nationality. What he is is a Scottish ex-lawmaker, not an ex-Scottish lawmaker. As our style guide explains, ex- (and former) should be placed with that thing that has been left behind or revoked:

A Communist ex-member has lost his seat; an ex-Communist member has lost his party.

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