Grammar Moses: Of malaphors and misplaced modifiers

Battling cancer is hard enough for a child. But having to also battle a sibling is simply too much.

Such was the conclusion you might draw from reading a headline in a recent story in the Daily Herald - without reading the story itself.

"I taught middle school students for 37 years," reader Kathy Heikkinen wrote to me. "Granted, I didn't teach English, but part of the story about the TLC camp in today's paper makes me laugh and cry."

An abbreviation of the headline was "A camp for kids battling cancer and a sibling."

Kathy continued: "As delicate a subject as this is, what kid doesn't battle with their sibling? How difficult must it be for the parents to watch their child battling cancer and a sibling? Where do they draw the line in discipline?"

The editors here have far more strengths than weaknesses. We're all fallible, though.

But misplacing the modifier in this case was particularly embarrassing to the editor who wrote the headline, because sussing out misplaced modifiers is one of her strengths.

"Oh boy," she wrote me when I shared with her Kathy's letter. "For someone like me, who is always railing against misplaced modifiers, this one hurts. I feel a bit as if I'm back in Mrs. Ratner's language arts class at River Trails Middle School, receiving a deserved scolding for diagraming a sentence badly."

My point here is that even when we know something like the back of our hand, like Steph Curry does at the free-throw line, we still don't see it every single time. Even Curry misses nine in 100 free throws.

While I made no such request, the editor went back into the story and reposted it with the improved headline: "Kids with cancer - and a sibling - can attend TLC Camp in Lombard."

Much better.


Another occasional problem is malaphors - the word a portmanteau of "malapropism" and "metaphor" - is one I dare say all of us fall prey to on occasion.

A favorite of my buddy Phil Ginnodo and the rest of the Rumpus Boys of my youth is "Make like a baby and leave!"

Makes no sense at all, right?

Well, not much the Rumpus Boys said or did (or say or do decades later) made a lot of sense.

In this case, it was a mashup of "Make like a tree and leave" and "Make like a baby and head out."

They're built on the same chassis and serve the same purpose, but smooshed together they sound silly.

And that was Phil's point.

Reader Rick Needham pointed out a malaphor in the sports section over a story about the Cubs walloping the A's: "Clicking on all cylinders."

This is a very common malaphor. In fact, it has become an idiom unto itself, exploding out of nowhere in the early 1980s. I've even found online dictionary definitions for it.

It's a combination of "clicking," which means jelling or working together, and "firing on all cylinders," which means operating at peak performance.

"Clicking on all cylinders" may not make much sense when you consider its origins, but then idioms - developed and bastardized over time with popular use - often don't make sense.

My advice: If your cylinders are clicking, get to your mechanic posthaste!

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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