“Pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. Friday, officials said the man had been killed at least 12 hours before.” That sentence says that the officials had been pronounced dead — and yet they were talking! What kind of gothic tale is this?

“Pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. Friday, officials said the man had been killed at least 12 hours before.”

That sentence says that the officials had been pronounced dead — and yet they were talking! What kind of gothic tale is this?

It’s a typical example of a common writing problem called a “dangling modifier.” In the above example, it’s a participial phrase that’s left hanging where it doesn’t belong. It’s supposed to be modifying “the man,” but its position in the sentence wrongly links it with “officials.”

An easy fix is to move the phrase to the word it’s modifying:

“Officials said the man, pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. Friday, had been killed at least 12 hours before.”

“Dangling modifier” is a colorful label, but I prefer to call such wayward phrasing “misdirection.” Here are a few more examples:

“After serving 33 years in prison, the parole board has delayed making a decision on letting him out until Aug. 25.” This implies the parole board is the one that has been doing time.

“Long the least popular of the three vehicles, Chrysler designers altered the Compass for 2011.”
Even if the Chrysler designers could be unpopular, they can’t be vehicles.

“Vacant since September 2011, Northwestern University is looking to demolish the hospital.” Yes, times have been tough for our nation’s colleges, but Northwestern has not been vacant for more than a half-year, the hospital has.

“Misdirection” applies to the preceding examples, in which a sentence is headed one way and then detours. It also could be called “misplacement,” which is more appropriate for the next two:

“But demand on other egg suppliers across the country is up as consumers continue to buy and eat them.”

Tell me: What does “them” refer to? There are only two plural nouns in the sentence. “Consumers” are the ones doing the buying and eating, so “egg suppliers” must be what they’re consuming. The horror!

No, they’re buying and eating “eggs,” but the sentence doesn’t say that. But it would if we put the “eggs” in the right basket:

“But demand on other suppliers across the country is up as consumers continue to buy and eat eggs.”

And the second one:

“The campaign is focused on people who consume alcohol and litter.” Unfortunately, “litter” can be a noun as well as a verb, so this could be saying that those folks also are consuming litter — clearly, they’ve had too much to drink.

A simple fix is to pick up the “litter” and move it:

“The campaign is focused on people who litter and consume alcohol.” Now the sentence has what is called “parallel construction”: The two words joined by “and” are both verbs.

Wrong sense

Sometimes a writer just doesn’t have the correct word. I have touched on this one before, but I saw two more instances of it on the same page last month. This was one of them:

“The three school districts presently have about 4,300 students combined.”

The word “presently” is NOT a synonym for “currently.” “Presently” doesn’t mean now, it means “soon,” as in, “I’ll be with you presently.” Even though it has “present” in it, it applies to something that will be, not to something that is.

What makes this common error worse is that even the correct word, “currently,” isn’t really necessary. Remove “presently” from the above example, and the sense is the same. Replace it with “currently” and you’ve added nothing.

Wrong letter

Spelling mistakes are less common in this era of spell-checking computer programs. But they do happen. This one didn’t make it into the newspaper:

“Find out who wins top honers at the regional spelling bee.”

I was surprised that our spell-checker doesn’t gag on “honer.” I guess it could be a noun for someone or something that “hones,” a verb that often is misused for “homes.”

At best, maybe the writer was trying to be funny by misspelling “honors,” but would readers know that?

Interestingly, the word “misspell” is one of the most frequently misspelled common words. Now that’s funny.

Next time: The special world of headlines.

Read Barry Wood’s Wood on Words blog at www.rrstar.com/blogs/barrywood.