“As a child his mom worked long hours to pay the monthly bills.”

Speaking of child labor.

My student wasn’t, though; she just suffered from that old malady, Dangling Modifier.

I can’t overlook the reference to the subject’s “mom,” of course. I have had students write about “Hamlet’s dad’s ghost” and about Beowulf’s battle with “Grendel’s mom.” Students seem lately not to want to write “father” or “mother.” I used to try to joke about it, suggesting that maybe they didn’t want to write “mother” because they thought it was only half a word—but those cool days are gone, and nobody gets the joke anymore…. At least, though, my arch little joke was SOME explanation for their juvenile phrasing; now I have none. Where is the sense of tone? Where is the instinct to suit one’s diction to one’s audience and purpose? Not there, evidently. All of literature is suburbanized, if not downright infantilized, by this invasion by the diminutive into serious discourse. Of course the students can’t be blamed, when grown women introduce themselves in commercials with “I’m a Mom…” (Sometimes it sounds like “Ommamom,” which might be a mystical salutation but I don’t think so.)

Anyway, this friendly mom, when she was a child, worked long hours to pay the monthly bills. This is illegal, at least nowadays, no matter how much the family may need the money. I hope that now that she’s an all-grown-up mom she’s allowed to stay home sometimes and let others pay the bills. I just hope she doesn’t hire her own kids out to do it.

Actually, the writer means that  when the person the student is really writing about was a child, his mother worked long hours to pay the monthly bills (who paid the weekly, quarterly, and annual bills? maybe his dad?). But that’s not what the sentence says, of course. There is no noun or pronoun in this sentence who could be doing any work except that mom, and there is no one here but her who could be working as a child.

There may be certain politicians who think it’s a fine idea for children to take on actual jobs that entail long hours of work,  but most civilized people disagree with that. I trust my student would also be appalled at the thought, no matter what her sentence blithely states.

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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

3 responses to ““As a child his mom worked long hours to pay the monthly bills.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Reading is the best remedy for language insensitivity. Children of immigrants (or, in my case, a grandchild of immigrants) don’t have to rely on home life to provide a life-long model of language use. There is all this Great Stuff out there to read! Unfortunately, nowadays, as we old folk like to say, nowadays, I reiterate, there are so many other things to do besides reading. My husband points out to me that to be a reader means, among many great and wonderful things, it means always being behind in everything else! Because: all you want to do is sit there and READ, for God’s sake; so please turn that music down, etc., and play that video game on mute. You can’t? That spoils it? Oh.

  • “…a four-year-old young man…” « You Knew What I Meant

    […] Anyway, some of these verbal realities have become taboos. I believe my students’ inability to write the word “mother” is somehow related to a taboo—possibly a fear of “mother-f***er,” or maybe the understanding that their own parent does not want to be viewed as anything less chummy than “Mom.” This must be why I had a student refer to “Hamlet’s mom.” […]

  • “Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…” | You Knew What I Meant

    […] voices and attitudes in their own verbal Smoothies. Hence the frequency of references to “Grendel’s mom” and “Hamlet’s dad” in student papers. I […]

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