When syntax attacks: the case of the misplaced modifier

Despite the evident plunge of our nation into the throes of ignorance and mindlessness, there are many of us to whom words still matter. The order of words matters, too. Check out this sentence from an article I was just reading:

The court denied the government’s request that it hear the case without prejudice.

The article from which that sentence is taken is about the Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene in a case prematurely; the Court ruled that it would allow a lower court to finish its work on a case about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the Trump Administration is trying to dismantle (the claim in the case is that the administration botched its stab at rule-making by mangling administrative-law procedures, which would be thoroughly unsurprising).

Speaking of mangling, look again at that sentence I quoted above. It says that the Court denied the government’s (Trump’s) request that it hear the case without prejudice. In other words, the Court might have agreed to hear the case, but only if it could do so with prejudice. This would be a preposterous thing for any court to suggest, but the writer of the sentence made that an eminently reasonable interpretation by indulging the diabolical misplaced modifier.

The words without prejudice, because they follow the words hear the case, seem to modify those words: hear the case. One would assume, though, that the writer of the sentence meant to use the words without prejudice to modify the word denied. This would be a logical construct from a legal perspective, since motions by lawyers are usually denied either with prejudice (meaning a court won’t entertain the same question again) or without prejudice (meaning a party may raise the same question again–but not until after some other condition occurs first).

So what the writer meant to write was this: The court denied without prejudice the government’s request that it hear the case.

The sentence is now unambiguous, and it has the added benefit that it steers clear of rank absurdity.