Longtime wordsmith Alden Wood teaches us how to fix common usage mistakes
Schools will soon be out just about everywhere, and fresh young minds will spill forth eagerly ready to download their wondrous learnings onto a waiting world. You remember, right?
Were you lucky enough to have a professor who taught you, the budding writer, about the transferred epithet? Neither was I, but most of mine did admonish me to “Read, Wood, read!” And recent reading, now a quotidian routine, took me over to page 286 of of R.L. Trask’s Mind The Gaffe (Penguin, 2001) a very good handbook for the likes of us:
“transferred epithet: This is the usual name for the curious English construction in which an adjective is understood as modifying, not the noun following it, but somebody or something else. Example: She was smoking a pensive cigarette. Here it is not the cigarette which is pensive but the woman smoking it. The construction is fully acceptable in standard English, and it can be used to great effect. But don’t do it every third sentence.”