You are what you're not -- participially speaking

REMEMBER when dangling participles could goad a 110-pound English teacher into a Rambo-like rage? Here's a classic: ``Dangling by the scruff of his neck, the teacher shook the ungrammatical student.'' But time marches on (corporal punishment is in decline), and the latest scourge on the English language is the negated participle. North America is awash in ``nonpracticing'' lawyers and Christians, ``non-working'' journalists, not to mention ``unpublished'' novelists. If something isn't done soon, we'll have a mitigated disaster on our hands. On the flap of his book on hockey, retired goaltender Ken Dryden is termed a ``non-practicing lawyer.'' Now the concept of a non-practicing goalie is perfectly comprehensible: a player who shows up only for the games. But what exactly does a legal professional of this peculiar negative bent do? Hang his shingle out in front of an abandoned office building?

It may be that Dryden is trying to seize the high moral ground by implying that he is capable of employing judicial wiles but chooses not to hang around waiting for misfortunes to happen to others. If this is the case, there is a better word to depict his condition; when a cannibal refuses to practice his traditional culinary proclivities he is called ``reformed.''

If being a fee-less barrister sounds like a rough row to hoe, try being an unpublished novelist sometime. A recent article in a prestigious newspaper characterized a gentleman just so. In fairness to the unnamed paper, it may be that its source insisted on the terminology. He simply may have been modest. Or he may have been concerned that readers would trot off to bookstores searching for his opuses. The solution to this knotty negative prose is quite simple. A novelist is a novelist whether he or she is paid, published, or praised.

Actually, this unpublished man and Mr. Dryden have something in common. Neither practices law, although the latter could be dubbed a ``published lawyer.''

Scribblers of ``personals,'' small advertisements by those seeking companionship, often portray themselves as, for instance, ``non-practicing Christians.''

Have they got the hang of it, so they don't need to practice anymore? Perhaps the advertisers are just signaling that it is all right to call them Sunday morning, since they won't be in church. Or it could mean something entirely different. That's the rub with these new negated participles; they can mean almost anything. At least one could eventually decipher the meaning of dangling-participle sentences. Sometimes they were even good for a laugh.

It is too early to tell if this participial smog is here to stay. But thousands of nouns out there could be modified with a non-characterization. For example, there is the quadrennial ``non-campaigning'' candidate: Ted Kennedy. ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier is the ``non-reigning'' President-for-Life of Haiti. And what about Soviet writers who submit articles strictly on speculation? Will they be said to to ``unfree-lancing''?

Looking back on the good old days, dangling participles weren't so bad, were they?

David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

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