“After clinging to life only by life support for six years.…”

You just know the subject that follows isn’t going to be modified by this participial phrase, don’t you? Indeed, I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel them coming a mile away. So few introductory prepositional phrases do modify the subjects of their sentences in my students’ papers that I raise my pen at the sight of “-ing.”

This student does not disappoint. Remember “a Virginia Supreme Court” that moved in on a father and daughter and stayed for six years? Well, here’s another six-year stint by another Supreme Court:

“After clinging to life only by life support for six years, the Missouri Supreme Court granted her father the right to remove Christine from life support.”

Somehow it seems a little selfish that the Missouri Supreme Court has been clinging to life “only by life support” and yet is willing to have someone named Christine removed from life support.

The introductory modifier must modify the main clause. The main clause here is “Supreme Court granted.”

Some state Supreme Courts do seem by their rulings to be antiquated or even moribund, but this is the first one I’ve ever imagined with tubes in their arms, tubes in their mouths and at their noses, and the beep-beep of monitors in the air. I don’t know how many judges make up the Missouri Supreme Court, but they must be lying there all in a row, like pretty maids or like products on a big-box-store shelf.

What made them regain consciousness long enough to tell Christine’s father he could let his daughter die? My student was writing on a right-to-die case. Lengthy comas with no reasonable prognosis of recovery are usually what figure in such cases. But if my student’s sentence is taken at face value, these judges ruled wrongly: if they could come out of a six-year coma, they should have been willing to imagine that Christine might also awaken.

Luckily, in the real world the Missouri Supreme Court had not, in fact, been clinging to life by life-support. That some of the judges may have been feeble, or destitute, or clinging to life in some other way is possible; but the one on life-support for six years was Christine, and since her physicians agreed with her father that continuing that course was needlessly prolonging a life that would never be able to sustain itself, the judges’ ruling that life-support could be terminated must have come as a relief to all involved.

The only one confused about who’s attached to machines is my student. If he had moved the modifier to follow Christine, and ideally also added a helping verb to make the participle a verb (“after she had been clinging to life…”), I would never have had to give the M.S.C. a thought beyond “well, that seems humane.” That’s the thought we generally want to have after a Supreme Court ruling, no?

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

Leave a Reply or Share a Horror.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: