What's the name of his other leg? (An editing lesson from 'Mary Poppins')

What's the name of his other leg? (An editing lesson from 'Mary Poppins')
Source: reusableart.com

Do you get ideas about language or writing when you're not expecting them? I do, so I'm happy to have a chance to share them.

On a recent Saturday night, I watched Disney's "Mary Poppins" on Channel 7 (ABC-TV). I sang along much of the time. Being "of a certain age," I haven't seen the movie as often as kids who grew up with videos, but my sister and I had several records of the songs.

Thus, the music was familiar, but the script surprised me. A repeated -- and important -- joke was a short conversation:

"I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith."

"Really? What's the name of his other leg?"

That's silly on the surface, but it's also a good way to check your writing for misplaced phrases. The sentence would be clearer (and, well, more Serious) as

"I know a man named Smith with a wooden leg."

If you're not sure whether your "with" is in the right place, try moving it as I just moved the "wooden leg."

Don't fall into thinking of "a person with a feature" as one unit if you want to add something more about him. For example, I have a postcard with four Parisian landmarks on my refrigerator. Now you're thinking I have a huge refrigerator, right? And is it clear that the "fridge" is still in Chicago?

I thought not. On my refrigerator in Chicago is a postcard with four Parisian landmarks on it.

So slow down, look at subordinate clauses and phrases, and you'll avoid leaving readers or listeners asking "What's the name of his other leg?"

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.

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  • What a great post! Grammar doesn't have to be intimidating. You made it fun. Thank you.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  • I'm usually looking for indefinite antecedents and modifiers.

    But the Smith story reminds me of when in jr. high (no longer called that), there was an assignment on to what you listened over Christmas break. I wrote about Allen Sherman's Old Lang's Sign. Dumb teacher marked me down.

  • In reply to jack:

    Hmmm. They're Laing's Signs at my place.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I don't think Allen Sherman was Scottish, although the origin of the song was.

  • In reply to jack:

    You're right on both counts, Jack. I may have something more on the subject of "Auld Lang Syne" around Dec. 31. Watch this space!

  • If the man with the wooden leg belonged to the NRA, the other leg must be Wesson.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Maybe they were the two Smith Brothers of cough drop fame, Trade and Mark.

  • In reply to jack:

    Aha! I never knew what the Smith Brothers' names were. The things I learn through blogging!

  • In reply to jack:

    So the wooden leg came from a cherry tree?

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I'll try not to say I got a bang out of that... whoops.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Good one, AW!

  • I enjoyed this post! Tell me if this is similar: Whenever I say "I'm hungry" to a particular friend, he likes to reply with "I'm Charles, pleased to meet you!" (he never tires of this joke) Anyway, the "Mary Poppins" movie will always be one of my favorites ---"I Love to Laugh" still tickles my funny bone!

  • Yes, it's similar -- and fun. One benefit of writing this is that it keeps "I Love to Laugh" firmly stuck in my mind's ear. Thanks for the reminder!
    (You see, I can be Serious about laughing!)

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