Avoid Crazy Connections by Proofreading Aloud

I just read a blurb for a sad news story: "Two EMTs are accused of ignoring a pregnant woman who collapsed and later died because they were on break."

The story is sad and disturbing, but the sentence structure suggests a preposterous connection. The woman did not collapse and die because the EMTs were on break, as the sentence implies. The EMTs ignored the woman because they were on break.  

We can catch crazy sentence connections two ways: by proofreading aloud, and by letting our writing sit before we review and publish it. Both ways help us recognize the unintended meanings our sentences may communicate.

Because people who write the news must publish quickly, it is not surprising that odd sentences sneak through their editing process. Still, proofreading aloud should have caught "died because they were on break."

What do you think of this revision?

"Two EMTs are accused of ignoring a collapsed pregnant woman because they were on their break. The woman later died."

I tried to communicate the complete thought in one sentence, but the two sentences above are the best I could do using the language of the original. If you can construct a better revision for a news opener, please share it.

Lynn
Syntax Training

11 COMMENTS

  1. Two EMTs are accused of ignoring a pregnant woman who collapsed as they went on break. The woman later died.

    The conjunction “because” still subtly suggests that the EMTs were the direct cause of the woman’s death. The conjunction “as” may more accurately depict the circumstance that the woman collapsed at the same time that the EMTs went on their break. Great blog!

  2. Marva, thanks for your revision. I like it and I would like to tweak it slightly. From the original, I did not get the impression that the woman collapsed as they were going on their break. So I would like to change your “as they went” to “while they were.”

    Again, thanks for your input!

    Lynn

  3. But doesn’t ‘because’ explain ‘ignore’ in the original revision? There is a clearly stated causal relationship there [the reason they ignored her] that becomes implied with both ‘as’ and ‘while.’ In addition, those words presume timing that is not apparent form the original information [based on the blurb alone, she may very well have collapsed before they went on break and they simply heard about it at that time].
    The subtle implication in the first revision–that the EMTs caused the woman’s death– seems to be clearly intended in the original.

  4. Lynn,

    Thanks and you are correct in changing my revision to “while they were on break…” as this is actual nature of the accusation. I read this story prior to finding your blog, but had to go back and relocate it. Here’s a link to the actual story: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/12/22/national/main6009430.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody

    I am teaching business and professional writing this semester after a 2 year hiatus, and if you do not mind, I will require my students to check out your blog.

    Happy New Year!

    Marva

  5. I think your blog is great and wanted to throw this in:

    Because they were on break, two EMTs ignored a pregnant woman who had collapsed and eventually died.

    What are your thoughts? I am a little new to business writing.

  6. Hi, Kate. Thanks for your kind words.

    You asked about your revision. Because it leaves out the part about the EMTs being accused, it does not carry the full message. Starting with “Because they were on break” seems to rationalize their decision. Compare your version to the others, and I think you will feel the difference.

    Have fun with your writing.

    Lynn

  7. Great advice. I have my students do similar exercises during my seminars, because it is important for writers to make it clear “who did what.” Another example I’ve found in print media: “The troops fired into the crowd protesting the return of the religious leader.”

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