25 August 2011

Ambiguity or Sloppy Grammar

Back in the spring of this year, The New York Times ran an obituary of a certain infamous individual that began with these words: "Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan on Sunday, was a son of the Saudi elite whose radical violent campaign to re-create a seventh-century Muslim empire redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century."


Now, they probably didn't mean to say that it is the Saudi elite in general whose radical violent campaign to recreate etc. has redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century.

This was, after all, an obit for Osama in particular, and they were saying that he is deserving of historic attention because of his own radical violent campaign, etc.

Or at least that's what they seem likely to have been trying to say! This is a classic instance (perhaps!) of the grammatical mistake known as a misplaced modifier. The phrase "son of the Saudi elite" is intended as a modifier for Osama bin Laden, but is misplaced so it looks like the "Saudi elite" is the subject on which the rest of the sentence is predicated.

They could have avoided the double-takes if they had written, say, "A son of the Saudi elite, Osama bin Laden, was killed in Pakistan on Sunday, ending his radical, violent campaign....which redefined...."

But my Machiavellian streak suggests that maybe this isn't carelessness, maybe they did mean to indict the whole Saudi elite, under the guise of an obit for an individual.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.