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In a NY Times article titled "Michelle Obama and the Evolution of a First Lady", there is this sentence:

Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, repeated the first lady’s criticisms to colleagues with indignation, according to three of them.

Is this correct usage? For me, it reads as if Rahm repeated it to angry colleagues (i.e. colleagues with indignation). But clearly the intent is that Rahm was angry and the three colleagues noticed that he was angry when he talked to them.

Or, is a comma required after "criticisms to colleagues"?

Or should it have been rephrased like this? "Three of Rahm's colleagues said that an incensed Rahm, then chief of staff, repeated the first lady’s criticisms to them." But Rahm is mentioned twice here.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The difficulty comes because "with indignation" is so far from the verb. Better would be

Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, repeated with indignation the first lady’s criticisms to colleagues, according to three of them.

Still better:

Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, indignantly repeated the first lady’s criticisms to colleagues, according to three of them.

If the indignation is intended to be a property of the colleagues, then the writer missed his mark. This being the NY Times, I doubt that is the case.

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As I mentioned, it is clear that the intent is that Rahm was angry. –  Babu Srinivasan Jan 8 '12 at 3:32
    
"Repeated with indignation the first lady's criticisms" puts a prepositional phrase between the verb and the direct object, which makes it sound ungrammatical to me. –  Peter Shor Jan 10 '12 at 12:16
    
@Peter: Where does it say that prepositional phrases may not be used this way? In any case, that example was merely meant as a step toward my final recommendation. –  Robusto Jan 10 '12 at 12:23
    
@Robusto: Here is a web page that says adverbs should not be placed there. I am fairly sure the same thing is true for adverbial prepositional phrases. I think this is a rule that can sometimes be broken, but your first sentence does sound wrong to me for this reason. –  Peter Shor Jan 10 '12 at 18:46
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The sentence you quote,

Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, repeated the first lady’s criticisms to colleagues with indignation, according to three of them

is perfectly punctuated. Here, there is no ambiguity about the fact that repeated...with indignation refers to Rahm's anger. If the colleagues were angry, then it should or would have read:

Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, repeated the first lady’s criticisms to indignant colleagues, according to three of them.

Your rephrasing is correct and confirms the intended meaning. However, I do not think it is as succinct.

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From my experience it is a matter of personal style whether to use a comma in cases like this. Some people like to break their sentences up in order to convey a particular tone. Some people use commas sparingly in favor of flow. Sometimes, if a writer wants to slow the flow of the sentence, or paragraph, they will break the sentence up. In this case it would have probably been needlessly obstructive to add an extra comma, and so the writer has to trust the reader will understand what is being said. It all comes down to the writer's style, which is often a reflection of how they speak. As long as basic grammar is adhered to, these kinds of details are generally a matter of style.

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I disagree. A sentence can be grammatically perfect and still be ambiguous. Since the whole point of language is to convey a message, the existence of alternative meanings that weren't intended -- but are allowed by the grammar -- could quite rightly be called an error on the part of the speaker/author. –  cHao Jan 8 '12 at 15:46
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