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Don't Write Like This!

James Taranto (Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web) catches this opening paragraph from an AP story:

A woman reported missing for several days was found stabbed to death in a minivan by family members who were called by police to pick up the vehicle because it was illegally parked near Pomona Superior Court, authorities said Monday.

Yow.

VincentPaul (mail):
Sentences such as this make teaching usage fun for both teacher and students.
2.20.2008 1:20pm
Some dude:
Too bad this episode of poking fun at grammar has to happen in the context of a fairly horrific true story.
2.20.2008 1:26pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
2.20.2008 1:28pm
Adam Scales (mail):
I thought editors usually tried to make sentences shorter and choppier. Assuming the necessity of fitting everything into one sentence, here are some suggestions:


Authorities reported Monday that a woman missing for several days was found stabbed to death after police called family to retrieve a minivan parked illegally near Pomona Superior Court.

Problem: Doesn't make clear where she was found. But, it's eleven words shorter.


Authorities reported Monday that a woman missing for several days was found stabbed to death in an illegally-parked minivan retrieved by family members after they were called by police

Now, the location is missing.

Authorities reported Monday that a missing woman's family, called by police to retrieve a minivan parked illegally near Pomona Superior Court, found the woman stabbed to death inside.

I think this works, and it's the shortest yet - 28 words.
2.20.2008 1:42pm
theobromophile (www):
While it's not nearly the grammatical horror show that EV posted, check out this headline:
Underwear left by body to taunt police?

Near the body, people, near the body, not by the body....
2.20.2008 1:49pm
Anderson (mail):
Too bad this episode of poking fun at grammar has to happen in the context of a fairly horrific true story.

Those are always the best ones!

Why did her family members stab her in the minivan?

(My local favorite is the recurring headline, "Man Critical After Shooting." I'll bet he is!)
2.20.2008 1:51pm
Arkady:
I've heard that when James Thurber was a crime reporter, his editor (new) demanded that all stories begin with a one-word lede. Thurber submitted this as his first assignment for the man:


Dead.

That was the way the man was that the police found on the corner of First and Broadway early this morning.
2.20.2008 1:53pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Reminds me of one of my first drafts.
2.20.2008 2:02pm
Vinnie (mail):
I knew that I could skip taking all of those pesky writting classes. Standards for professional writers has dropped below the grade school threshold.
2.20.2008 2:16pm
Tillman Fan (mail):
I don't know that I agree that it's a poorly written sentence. Sure, it's long, but I think that it manages to convey a lot of information while remaining clear.
2.20.2008 2:18pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):

I don't know that I agree that it's a poorly written sentence. Sure, it's long, but I think that it manages to convey a lot of information while remaining clear.


It's clear, if by clear you mean "slightly more translucent than mud." As written, it says that the woman was stabbed by her family members!
2.20.2008 2:24pm
DJR:
Adam Scales:

The problem with all of your examples is that they move the least important part of the sentence "authorities reported" to the beginning and the most important part (family members found the woman stabbed to death) to the end. To eliminate confusion, remove the passive voice:

Family members of a woman missing for several days found her stabbed to death in the family's minivan near Pomona Superior Court after police called them to pick up the vehicle because it was parked illegally.

By the way, do police really call to tell people to pick up their illegally parked vehicles? Don't they just put on a boot and be done with it?
2.20.2008 2:36pm
Adam Scales (mail):
DJR,

I agree your sentence is superior, but it omits the fact that the police made this disclosure on Monday. Now, I presume that the body was found on some other day, perhaps Sunday, and that's why the sentence was written that way. But, if the task is to convey all the information in the original sentence (we agree, I think, that this is not an important objective), your improved version doesn't do the job.
2.20.2008 2:49pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Don't they just put on a boot and be done with it?

Then who would find the bodies?
2.20.2008 2:50pm
theobromophile (www):
Family members of a woman missing for several days found her stabbed to death in the family's minivan near Pomona Superior Court after police called them to pick up the vehicle because it was parked illegally.

You could make the sentence a little less awkward by changing the end to " the illegally-parked vehicle."
2.20.2008 2:56pm
Mark W (mail):
All this pales in comparison to the reports of "...alleged shooting victim taken to emergency room".
2.20.2008 3:18pm
glangston (mail):
Police impounded a minivan last week but failed to search it. When the owners came to pick up the van they discovered the body of their missing daughter* inside, apparently stabbed to death.

*or mother or aunt, cousin, neice.
2.20.2008 3:25pm
Ben4343434:
I don't know the answer to this, but wouldn't a comma solve the problem?

"A woman reported missing for several days was found stabbed to death in a minivan, by family members who were called by police to pick up the vehicle because it was illegally parked near Pomona Superior Court, authorities said Monday."

It seems like there needs to be something separating the clauses ending at 'minivan' and beginning at 'by'. But the comma might be a splice. Grammarians?
2.20.2008 3:57pm
Temp Guest (mail):
Five passive constructions in one sentence that's flaunting your flouting!
2.20.2008 4:03pm
Virginian:
This post reminds of the time I shot an elephant in my pajamas!
2.20.2008 4:09pm
csl:
Anyone want to try diagramming that beast?
2.20.2008 4:21pm
Asher Steinberg (mail):
I don't know the answer to this, but wouldn't a comma solve the problem?

"A woman reported missing for several days was found stabbed to death in a minivan, by family members who were called by police to pick up the vehicle because it was illegally parked near Pomona Superior Court, authorities said Monday."

It seems like there needs to be something separating the clauses ending at 'minivan' and beginning at 'by'. But the comma might be a splice. Grammarians?


Not quite, but you're getting there. It'd still be a terribly ugly sentence, but if you insert an additional comma after the found, I think then it would at least be clear that the "by family members" depended on the 'found,' not the 'stabbed.'
2.20.2008 4:22pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
I don't know that I agree that it's a poorly written sentence. Sure, it's long, but I think that it manages to convey a lot of information while remaining clear.


There are two major ambiguities in the sentence:

A woman reported missing for several days


Does this mean that for several days people were reporting her missing, or that she was missing several days and this was reported?


found stabbed to death in a minivan by family members


Did the family members find her stabbed to death, or was she found having been stabbed to death by family members?
2.20.2008 4:34pm
Bruce:
The "authorities" apparently speak in very long sentences without breathing. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit where the police keep asking the complainant to speak in a different voice.
2.20.2008 4:43pm
neurodoc:
LTEC, you had to add your two zuzim?*

*I have wondered, and still do, how much two zuzim would amount to in present day dollars.
2.20.2008 4:56pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
It's not very pretty, but I too found it crystal clear and highly informative.

The objections from ambiguity strike me as dicey. The possible ambiguity lurking for "A woman reported missing" is immediately bumped off by the subsequent prepositional phrase "for several days."

The "stabbed to death by family members" reading of "was found stabbed to death in a minivan by family members" strikes me as highly unnatural: I may find a body that had been stabbed by family members, but I don't find a body stabbed by family members (unless I myself were the one who had been stabbed by family members; ah, ambiguities everywhere). I'd guess this is because knowing the identity of the murderer requires an inference that doesn't match the color of the verb 'find' (though that explanation can't quite be all of it, since "she was found stabbed to death by family members" is a closer call).
2.20.2008 4:59pm
dave h:
"Why did her family members stab her in the minivan?"

It says right there - because she illegally parked the minivan near Ponoma Superior Court.
2.20.2008 5:03pm
Craig Oren (mail):
I worked as a stringer for a wire service. Often lede sentences are this complicated because you are trying to tell the story for an editor who may only have four or five lines for it. So you cram everything possible into the lede.
2.20.2008 5:13pm
anonthu:
Adam Scales:
Authorities reported Monday that a missing woman's family, called by police to retrieve a minivan parked illegally near Pomona Superior Court, found the woman stabbed to death inside.

Couldn't this imply that the family found the woman inside the courthouse?
2.20.2008 5:36pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
Did the police notice the minivan by the Pomona County Court, ticket it, look up the owners and call the family all without realizing there was a dead woman inside? Only when the family arrived at the Pomona County Court to pick up the minivan did the family find the missing woman inside?

That's the way I read it. If that's what happened, then it seems to be a properly written (albeit somewhat long and convoluted) sentence. If I've misinterpreted the meaning, then I suppose it is a poorly written question. Not sure how else to interpret it.
2.20.2008 6:15pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
I should add that if the cops ticketed a parked vehicle without realizing there was a dead body inside, that's the real story here.
2.20.2008 6:16pm
stanneus :
Here's a similar beauty a student wrote some years ago: The man was examined at the hospital after he was shot according to standard emergency room procedures.
2.20.2008 7:01pm
JBL:
Bad writing reported by Volokh on his blog from the AP.
2.20.2008 9:26pm
LM (mail):
There's no way to turn this into anything acceptable. Even if the story actually was that the woman was killed by her family because the van was illegally parked by the courthouse, you'd still have to fire the reporter for burying the lede.
2.21.2008 12:27am
eyesay:
eurodoc: "I have wondered, and still do, how much two zuzim would amount to in present day dollars."

The cost of a baby goat?

The Heifer Project fights world hunger and poverty by donating farm animals to poor families, who are expected to in turn to give their animal's firstborn to a poor neighbor. Through the Heifer project, for $120, one can donate an adult goat. This puts a plausible upper bound on the value of two zuzim.
2.21.2008 1:26am
Nornl:
Adam,

I suppose you could follow the awkward newspaper convention (as in the original) of adding ", authorities reported Monday" at the end of the sentence. I left it out because I have always been annoyed at that convention. It doesn't add anything to the story that unnamed "authorities" said this happened, except perhaps to cover the reporter's ass if the authorities were lying about what happened. Even then, I generally presume that in a story like this one someone told the reporter what happened, not that he or she was there to see the family members discovering a dead body in a minivan.
2.21.2008 8:53am
qwerty (mail):
Why not two sentences? A missing woman was found stabbed in a minivan. Family members found her when looking for the minivan. "Authorities reported" doesn't add a lot of value, that's how this type of info typically gets into the paper. You get the drift.
2.21.2008 1:01pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Boiling the sentence to its essentials, the headline would be "Missing Woman Found". We don't really care who found her, or where, until we find out that she had been missing for several days. Then the cops' calling the bereaved to move the deceased's car becomes interesting. So I like the way in which the sentence organizes the facts without overclaiming them.
2.21.2008 9:58pm