In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee, 2013), compiled by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, I encountered the following remarkable passage showing the overuse of adjectives. It’s by Pel Torro, aka Lionel Fanthorpe, from his 1968 story Galaxy 666:
The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.
Rather than “wretched”, I would say it’s deliberately over the top, done for humorous effect. Extravagant repetition aside, the style is solid and rhetorically varied. But you can see why it’s been singled out.
The following examples of ambiguous syntax (also found in Wretched Writing) are likewise humorous, but probably unintentionally so:
Now a glob of burnt plastic, Saatchi reportedly spent $900,000 for the piece. (Art & Antiques, 2004)
After years of being lost under a pile of dust, Walter P. Stanley, left, found all the old records of the Bangor Lions Club. (Bangor Daily News, 1978)
She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco. (Danielle Steel, Star)
Unless you have the originals, you’ll have to take the Petrases’ word for it that these are authentic. Normally I would, but in a section on “dangerously dated words” they cite a line from Dracula (“Van Helsing rushed into the room, ejaculating furiously”) that I cannot find in the original text.
I don’t have a zero-tolerance policy towards danglers. As I’ve noted before (‘A hovering dangling modifier’), the construction is old and well-established in literature. But there’s a danger the ambiguity will create absurd or confusing imagery, as in the first two cases above, so it’s something for writers and editors to look out for.
Speaking of which. Wretched Writing contains many amusing examples of writers messing up and editors dropping the ball, but the prose commenting on these examples leaves something to be desired. For instance: it describes clauses, ineptly, as “little snippets of complete ideas that appear in the middle of sentences”. Didn’t they look it up?
The book also succumbs to Muphry’s Law, being at times badly proofread. When you’ve finished enjoying Tom Clancy’s “The sun rose promptly at dawn”, below, take a look at the second quotation and you’ll see what I mean. The presentation is, to borrow from Fanthorpe, “horribly uncustomary”:
For more like this (I mean the funny parts), see my older post on ‘howling ambiguities.’