“During a Christmas celebration, a man dressed in all green on a green horse known as the Green Knight comes riding in.”

Misplaced modifier rides again, this time on a green horse!

Of course the student meant here that the man is known as the Green Knight. But that’s not what she wrote.

The English language, lacking grammatical inflections of most kinds (those endings or other word forms, so important in German and Latin, for instance, that show the function of the word in the sentence), depends heavily on word order to convey word function. The difference between “The boy hit the ball” and “The ball hit the boy” is created by word order, not word form. Some parts of speech are less fussy than others about where in a sentence they occur—adverbs least of all: although moving them around can change the emphasis or shading of a sentence, it usually makes little or no difference to the basic meaning of the sentence. Adjectives, on the other hand, can be quite demanding.

The usual placement of an adjective is directly preceding its noun, as in “the Green Knight.” An adjective phrase that opens a sentence— “Happy at last,” “Hoping for a raise,” “Tired of his voice”— therefore modifies the subject of the sentence, which is usually the first noun or pronoun in the main clause and thus immediately follows: “Happy at last, she smiled.” “Hoping for a raise, Henry volunteered for every chore.” “Tired of his voice, the director ended Paul’s audition.” Some of the great student writing errors occur as a result of a mismatch between the introductory adjective phrase and the subject of the sentence: “As a child his mother would take him to church on a regular basis.”

Adjectives can stand on the other side of a verb of being; in that structure they are predicate adjectives, or, in more modern and less graceful words, subject complements: The man is green. This kind of sentence is the verbal version of a mathematical equation: m = g. (I don’t like the term “subject complement” because students invariably write “subject compliment,” as though saying a man is green is saying something nice about him.)

Adjectives can follow their nouns in certain structures, such as prepositional phrases (a knight of green), adjective clauses (a man who is known as the Green Knight), or adjective phrases, often participial phrases (a man known as the Green Knight). But, just as with adjectives that precede their nouns, postnominal adjectives have to follow their nouns immediately.

And that’s where this student made her mistake. “A man known as the Green Knight, dressed all in green and riding a green horse, comes riding in.” Or “The Green Knight, a man dressed all in green and riding a green horse, comes riding in.” These are fine. Of course she could have begun with the modifiers too: “Dressed all in green and riding a green horse, the Green Knight comes riding in.”

I don’t think she actually meant that the horse was known as the Green Knight, but that’s what she wrote.

In all likelihood the “known as the Green Knight” was an afterthought. She had already begun her sentence with her subject, this man, and described him with a perfectly good postnominal adjective (although it seems to be the color green that’s “on” the horse, or perhaps he did the dressing while on the horse). But before she could get to the verb she realized she ought to use the character’s name, and so she stuck it in and then moved on.

Or else she considered “man-dressed-in-all-green-on-a-green-horse” a composite noun, all one concept—in which case she could argue that she has placed “known as the Green Knight” correctly, immediately after the noun it modifies. This is how we sometimes talk.

But writing permits revision, and this sentence demands it!

(I wish she had also changed “in all green” to “all in green,” a more standard phrasing, but that’s less urgent.)

I’ve worked through all this elementary grammar here because when I try to show students how they might revise a problematic sentence this is what goes through my mind, and it’s often what I inflict on the hapless students as explanation. Here, I guess it’s either offered for verisimilitude or as re-creation for recreation.

And I’m revisiting all these Gawain errors because I’m in the midst of teaching “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in my BritLit survey. While Sir Gawain’s path leads to the Green Chapel, mine seems to be taking me down Memory Lane.…

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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