Misplaced Modifiers

Languages are either inflected, meaning endings are added to words to specify their relationship, or uninflected, as in English, where the relationship is specified by the position in the sentence. We find speaking an inflected languages (such as French) especially difficult. We have to first develop an almost instinctive knowledge of grammar so we can apply the endings on the fly. The natives do not need to know the grammar. By growing up with the language, one way just sounds right, and anything else does not.

We also go by what sounds right. We run into trouble when writing where we have no sound to guide us, except in our imagination. In our English grammar of position, a modifier modifies the closest thing to it. Sometimes we garble the order and the logical modifier gets separated from the modifiee.  Then what? Do we believe the logic or the grammar?

My favorite example of a misplaced modifier was a joke in the old movie, The Thin Man.

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) walks into the room holding a newspaper. She tells Nick Charles (William Powell), lying in a hospital bed,  “They say you got shot in the tabloids!”

Nick replies, “They’re lying! The bullet didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

(The movie was released in 1934, just months before enforcement of the Hays Code began.)

“In the tabloids” should logically modify “say,” but it is too far away. The phrase is closer to “shot” and grammar tells us  that’s what it modifies.  All it took was for Nick to change the definition of “tabloids,” and you have the joke. (Actually, Nora’s line sounds stilted, but she said it better that it reads.)

Nora should have said, “They say in the tabloids you were shot,” and then there would be no confusion, but also no joke.


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Unwanted Office Buildings

Two venerable old office buildings in downtown Wilmington are being repurposed, or trying to be repurposed. Not enough companies want the traditional offices anymore.

The first is the Hercules Building, once the headquarters of the Hercules Chemical Company. The other, the newer one, is the Du Pont Building, once the headquarters of the Du Pont company. Those two were largely the reason Wilmington was known as “the chemical capitol of the world.”

I understand that even the most seemingly enduring companies go out of business and merge with other companies. Change is the American way. But this change is more fundamental. The very concept of an office has changed.

I’m talking about the traditional office we are all familiar with: The boss’s office with adjoining open space for his secretary, her desk and a filing cabinet or two. Corporate presidents, vise-presidents and directors with their own suites with an outer lobby manned (or, more accurately, “womaned”) by a receptionist/secretary. Support people with degrees in individual offices lined up on either side of a hallway. Lower support people grouped together in a larger room divided into cubicles. Nearby restrooms, vending machines, and a lobby with a receptionist and perhaps a cafeteria on the ground floor. Below that, underground secure parking.

Private restrooms for upper management had already disappeared by my time. Sometimes in our shared restrooms, I saw more than I wanted to see, and wished they had their own restrooms back. No one wants to see the boss’s package.

All gone. Business is not done that way anymore. The boss is no longer isolated in his own office (he was always a “he”). He is now one of the boys, working where they work. It is now a world of break rooms, shared offices, private areas (where the boss can reprimand an employee), playrooms (can you believe it?), and computer terminals everywhere within reach. The office, itself, is no longer in center-city, accessible by public transportation that no one uses anymore. but in a leased one-story building in the suburbs, surrounded by a huge parking lot. Much more convenient for everyone.

I think this new office system is just a fad that will have a short life.  In a few years I expect people will be clamoring for a return to the old offices.  But, who cares what I think?  I am a known fuddy-duddy, resistant to change.

Do you have any ideas for an obsolete downtown office building? A dog run, perhaps? Indoor tennis courts?  Many people are looking for suggestions.


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That Yellow Traffic Light

In most states, as long as the front of your vehicle entered the intersection (passed the crosswalk or limit line) before the light turned red, you haven’t broken the stoplight law. —Internet, 9/17/2017

Back in our high school days, Mr. Brown, our unfailingly patient Driver’s Ed teacher, taught us a yellow traffic light meant “clear the intersection.” If we wanted to make a left turn from a highway, we drove up to a green traffic light, stopped fully in the intersection with our left turn signal on, perhaps even turned a little left, and waited. The oncoming traffic would stop on the yellow signal, which gave us a chance to make our turn before the light turned red.

I only see drivers of our generation do this. Younger drivers do better.  They stop, pointed straight ahead, before entering the intersection and wait for a break in the oncoming traffic. If there is no break and the light turns red, they will wait for a green arrow at the start of the next cycle. Only a driver with a death-wish would purposely stop in an intersection on a yellow light. Those who do by accident back up as soon as they can.  Those behind them make room, recognizing a dangerous situation.  I suspect the laws have changed, but this is only my observation. Many highways now have left-turn lanes that encourage the new behavior.

As we know, many drivers in all states consider any yellow traffic light seen within a quarter of a mile ahead as a signal to stomp on the accelerator and speed through the intersection, even if the light turns red before they reach it. Many times I have felt guilty squeaking through a yellow light, then seeing in my rear-view mirror five more cars going through what is now an obvious red light.

Traffic engineers build in a few seconds delay between the light turning red and the cross-traffic light turning green.  The trouble is, drivers who use that route every work day know this.  They quickly learn how much grace time they have and depend on it to run the red light.  The engineers  can’t win.

In most countries—and states—there are two sets of traffic laws: the written, official laws handed out to minors, the mentally challenged, and foreigners, and the unwritten, unofficial laws that the locals know and abide by. (My wife claims the real speed limit is always at least 5 mph over the posted limit.  I think she is right.)



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A syndicated cartoon in our local paper, Non Sequitur, was titled, “Grandpa ups his game.” It shows Grandpa telling stories around a campfire to several children who are wide-eyed with imagined terror. He is saying, “. . . we only had three channels to watch on TV, and the phone was . . . plugged into the wall!!”

At our house we had a small UHF (ultra-high frequency) antenna mounted on top of the normal VHF (very-high frequency) antenna, so we could get three more channels, making six all together. I think one UHF channel was a New Jersey PBS station. Six channels to chose from! How could we pick just one to watch?  We only had one TV, so the whole family had to watch the same channel.  Usually, the channel was chosen by vote, but some votes counted more than others.  Still, conflict was rare.  Most times, one program was the clear winner for everyone.   For example,  Tuesday night was Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater by unanimous choice.  No one even had to ask.

And that TV programming was free. Now, of course, we get about 50 channels on cable that costs over $100 per month, and everyone sits in their own room watching their own TV, but often there is nothing worth watching. That’s progress.

My phone is still plugged into the wall.  I do not have a cell phone, only a landline, but at least it is no longer a party line. When I talk with someone, I picture them sitting in their living room holding the receiver to their ear, like me, and I am surprised when they tell me they are in their car driving to the grocery store. But they are paying way more than I am for the luxury. That, too, is progress.


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Tyrone Power

Thank heavens for the Internet to sort things out.

It was a rainy day and I was watching an old silent movie, Where Are My Children? on TCM. It was listed as starring Tyrone Power, but I did not recognize anyone who remotely resembled Tyrone Power. Turns out, the Tyrone Power I am familiar with is Tyrone Power, Jr. The old movie starred the father, Tyrone Power, Sr. Two Tyrone Powers may be old stuff to you, but it was new to me.

Tyrone Power, Sr., was a well-known English actor. He often went by his first name, Fred, to distinguish himself from several “Tyrone Powers” in the family line of stage actors. His paternal grandmother was related to the later Laurence Olivier. No wonder Tyrone Power, Jr. went into acting. He died in 1958 at age 44 of a heart attack.

We once had a cat “Tyrone,” but he was not named after either actor.


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The Delaware Wedge

Settle down, children, and I’ll tell you the strange history of the Delaware Wedge. You probably never heard of it, but Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have argued over it for more than 200 years.

The Wedge

It has been a long time since high school, so I’ll review the Mason-Dixon line, which is a prominent feature in all of this. It was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 and formed most of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland (shown on the map at left, but unlabeled).  The line, on the east side, then dropped south, then east again to the ocean to form the boundary between Maryland and Delaware.  This Mason-Dixon survey was done to settle boundary disputes, but boundary disputes never end.  Only later in the Civil War era was the line used to define the free Northern states from the slave-holding Confederate states.

The top of Delaware is a nominal arc, called the twelve-mile circle, radiating from the cupola on top of the courthouse in New Castle. Technically, it is not a single arc, but a composite of segments, each laid out separately, although no Delawarean will admit it. A good map will show the arc as slightly choppy, as it is.

The twelve-mile circle was meant to join at the corner where the Mason-Dixon line turned south, but inaccuracies in the survey caused it to fall short, creating this tiny wedge that has been argued over ever since. (I am not finished with the Wedge and will come back to it.)

A quick digression: The east boundary of Delaware is the Delaware River, but in the vicinity of the arc, the boundary is along the banks of the New Jersey side, not in the center as you would expect. This is spelled out in the specifications for the arc.  Above the arc, between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the boundary is in the center of the river, as usual, and the boundary moves back to the center south of the arc, a Little below the Commodore Barry Bridge   about where Alloway Creek in New Jersey feeds into Delaware Bay.  So, in the northern part of Delaware, the entire width of the Delaware River belongs to Delaware.

(Sometime in the recent past, New Jersey created a landfill that stuck out a little into the river, and that part belongs to Delaware. In my kayaking days, I have stood on that piece of land and looked across the river to New Castle, secure in the knowledge I was a legal resident of Delaware standing on Delaware territory.  From a distance, the New Jersey police still yelled at me to get off, and I did, figuring the principle was not worth a fight. It is not my job to educate them.)

This legal position of the boundary in the Delaware river is not a trivial matter. In 2012, New Jersey wanted to build a pier for offloading ships carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG). Even though it was to be on the New Jersey side, the pier would extend into the river where it would be in Delaware territory. Delaware successfully halted the project, but it took a decision by the Supreme Court.  The story ended happily for everyone as falling gas prices made the proposed pier impractical, and the plan was not pushed to fruition.

But now back to the Wedge. The Wedge is roughly triangular in shape with an area less than a square mile. It is only about 3/4 of a mile wide at the top and 3 miles long.  That’s tiny, even for Delaware.  As viewed on Google Earth, the Wedge seems to be populated now with tony estates.

Maryland clearly had no legitimate claims to the Wedge.  William Penn owned both Pennsylvania and Delaware, so he was not overly concerned about the accuracy of the boundary between them. The controversies came later from others.

Court decisions have since given the Wedge to Delaware, who long assumed ownership, anyway. You can see its remains on a map as a little shelf of land on Delaware’s NW corner. This shelf was a quick fix and is  only an extension of the true Mason-Dixon line. The court acted wisely. If they had given the Wedge to Pennsylvania, we would forever have to explain that little icicle of land hanging down.

Very recently, a Tri-State Monument was placed at the NW corner of the Wedge, I suppose to commemorate the stubbornness of politicians.  I could find nothing on the Internet about it, but a trustworthy friend says he saw it.

That’s enough for today’s lesson, kids. Now you should at least know where the Wedge is and how it came about.  If anyone gives you an argument about it,  just walk away.  It is only important to those who wallow in the cesspool of trivia. It is what it is, I kid you not.


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Reality Show Dangers (Or Lack Thereof)

I was watching Life Below Zero on the National Geographic channel. The program was about the spring thaw and how people could no longer cross a frozen river on the ice which was now too thin. This one guy, living alone, reasoned he could only swim across to get to his canoe he left there three years ago. (I didn’t understand why he could not build some sort of a raft, or wait until next winter, but his way made for dramatic television.) He explained he had to first harden his body to the cold by swimming for short periods naked in the icy river, and we saw glimpses of this (from the waist up).

When he was ready for the actual swim to the other side, the camera was right there, following every stroke. Halfway across, the current caught him and he briefly struggled for his life.

For his life? From the angle of the scene, we know the camera crew must have been very close by in their boat. A camera crew consists of at least 3 people: a camera man, a sound man, and a producer. In this situation, they probably had another person operating the outboard motor. When he looked up at us in panic, he was really looking up at 3–4 people in a boat. He may have really been panicked, but it was in fear of ruining the shot. (The boat carefully stayed downstream of the current so their wake would not show.)

In many reality shows involving danger, we know a film crew must be right there.  Nobody’s going to die.  Sometimes, the camera flips from one angle to another, and a second crew must be there, too. That’s at least six people filming, not counting the lighting crew. A big production for out in the wilderness.

(One of the show’s participants is suing the producers for forcing her to do dangerous activities to fit a made-up story line.  She may have a valid complaint or hoping the show will pay her off to keep her quiet, but anyone can sue anyone else for any reason, however frivolous.  It may be quickly thrown out by a judge.)

But still, we did see him swimming naked in a river with chunks of ice drifting by, which is way more than I would have done for any price, I kid you not.


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