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Foreign languages left hanging

JUNE CASAGRANDE

Ah, the food court -- a place where you might get your pizza from a

native Farsi speaker, your wontons from a Spanish speaker and your

burrito from a blond kid from Anaheim named Cody who’d rather remove

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his own tattoos with a pencil eraser than speak a kind word to you in

any language.

Imagine my surprise when, at a Valley mall, I realized that the

guy making my crepe was actually French. As his accent tipped me off,

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I found myself in a situation I’ve been in a hundred times -- torn

between seizing an opportunity to practice my state U francais or

clamming up and sparing myself certain embarrassment. But as

long-term readers of this column know, I have a very close

relationship with humiliation. I spoke up.

“Do a lot of Americans who come here practice their French with

you?” I asked the crepe chef in butchered French.

“Oui,” he said, piling spinach and goat cheese onto my crepe, “but

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most people are afraid.”

Alex, his name was, endured my butchering of his language while we

talked about fear -- the great enemy of all who aspire to learn

foreign languages.

“People are afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “But that’s how you

learn.”

A moment later, I gave him a chance to demonstrate: I botched an

attempt to say in the French past tense “I saw.”

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“‘Vu’, not ‘voir,’” he corrected me. “Past tense.”

Well, I knew it was past tense. It’s not like I had been trying to

say, “Yesterday I see.” The problem was that I had forgotten the

participle.

In English, as in French, participles are basically one part of a

multi-part verb. Here in the land of Freedom Fries, participles are

most famous for dangling. And for many people, dangling participles

are fear itself. The very term conjures up memories of some

pinch-faced and black-souled English teacher whose life mission

seemed to be to instill in every child a certainty that learning

grammar is simply hopeless. Yet dangling participles and other

danglers are among the easiest concepts in the language.

Consider the sentence: “Dancing at his daughter’s wedding,

happiness overwhelmed the father of the bride.” What’s wrong with

that sentence? Happiness doesn’t dance.

Let’s try another: “Tired of hearing Americans assault his mother

tongue, the crepe came flying across the food court and landed in my

face.” See what’s wrong here? Crepes don’t tire of hearing bad

French.

Participles are usually words that end in “ing,” “ed” or sometimes

“en.” They’re called participles because they often work in concert

with auxiliary verbs to make compounds such as “was dancing” or “have

tired.” These “ing” and “ed” participles are said to dangle when

they’re not logically connected to the subject performing the action.

Usually, the writer just forgets how he set up the first part of the

sentence, the “antecedent.”

Danglers can even be participle free. For example, “Unhappy with

the outcome, that language would never again be uttered by her.” The

correct, nondangling approach is, “Unhappy with the outcome, she

would never again utter that language.”

Not all danglers are as obvious. Just a few weeks ago I wrote, “As

a columnist, it is my job to take positions.” A better choice would

have been, “As a columnist, I’m expected to take positions,” or, “I’m

a columnist, so it’s my job to take positions.”

To avoid dangling your participles, you don’t need to know the

word “participle” or “dangle.” Just remember to make sense. Make sure

that the “participial phrase” beginning a sentence is followed

immediately by a noun that is the subject of that action. In other

words, make sure the relationship between your subjects and your

verbs is a logical one. Unlike the relationship between your

food-court tandoori and the “gracias” or “arigato” or “merci” or

“shukran” that accompanied it.

* JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

JuneTCN@aol.com.


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