Misplaced modifying phrase fractures Bohol earthquake news

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

In last week’s column, I critiqued the shock-and-awe English of the Bohol earthquake news reportage by two major Metro Manila dailies. I took issue with their directly equating the 7.2-magnitude earthquake with 32 Hiroshima atomic-bomb explosions. I do think that like comparing apples and pears, it’s logically untenable to draw equivalence between an earthquake’s seismic energy and the power of so many nuclear blasts.

Actually, I also spotted a jaw-dropping grammar fault in another earthquake story of one of those dailies, but I didn’t have enough column space to discuss it then. I’m therefore taking this opportunity now to analyze that problematic sentence for the benefit of the many readers and English learners who must have been confounded by it.
Here’s the sentence:

“Barely recovering from Tuesday’s earthquake, two consecutive 5.1 magnitude struck Bohol Wednesday morning, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.”

Let’s grant that a proofreader had inadvertently dropped the word “earthquakes” from the main clause. That sentence should then have read as follows: “Barely recovering from Tuesday’s earthquake, two consecutive 5.1 magnitude earthquakes struck Bohol Wednesday morning, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.”


Even as corrected, though, that sentence remains a nonsensical mindbender. Which of these subjects was “barely recovering from Tuesday’s earthquake”—the “two consecutive 5.1 earthquakes,” “Bohol,” or “Wednesday morning”? What does that frontline phrase intend to modify in the main clause, and what, in fact, is the true subject or doer of the action in that sentence?

From the fractured syntax of the statement, we can deduce that what we have here is a carelessly misplaced modifying phrase. Indeed, “barely recovering from Tuesday’s earthquake” logically shouldn’t modify “two consecutive 5.1 magnitude earthquakes” but “Bohol” instead.

But how do we reconstruct that sentence to reflect this sense?

Recall that the general rule for avoiding misplaced modifiers is this: position the modifying word or phrase as close as possible to the noun or subject it ought to modify. By applying this rule along with elementary logic, we should be able to come up with this grammatically unassailable sentence:

“Barely recovering from Tuesday’s earthquake, Bohol was struck by two consecutive 5.1-magnitude earthquakes Wednesday morning, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.”

To bring “Bohol” as close as possible to the modifying phrase (in fact, they are adjacent now), all we had to do was to render the active-voice main clause in the passive voice. The problem is that this simple expedient for avoiding misplaced modifying phrases is often shunned by some newspaper writers and editors with a profound bias for the active voice—with semantically disastrous results, of course.

* * *

Still on the Bohol earthquake, I had a discussion with a friend about the October 17 briefing led by Dr. Renato Solidum, Phivolcs chief, during which the forecast was made that a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Manila and nearby provinces would kill at least 37,000 persons and injure 604,000, seriously for 16,000 of them.

My friend and I agreed that a scary prediction like that is needed to heighten public awareness and preparedness for such catastrophic events. I told him though that it was rather odd for Dr. Solidum to conclude his presentation with this self-composed verse:

“Buildings will not crumble and people inside will not stumble; in the very near future all the communities are resilient and they will say that they are ready to rumble with the temblors but we’re ready to deal with Metro Manila’s concrete jungle.”

My friend admonished me to be more tolerant of such exuberance—after all, he said, many eminent scientists from Isaac Newton to Albert Einsten had this or that eccentricity—but I wondered if it wasn’t terribly out of place nevertheless, and that perhaps that newspaper should have been prudent enough to exclude that verse from the news story.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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