Saturday, December 5, 2009

Parents Defamed by Bad Antecedent

"Andrew Conley, 17, was charged as an adult in Ohio Circuit Court with murdering his brother, Conner Conley, a decision supported by the boys' parents..."

The story of Andrew and Conner Conley is a sad story, but not quite as sad as this sentence from the Associated Press (printed in today's Star Tribune) would make it seem: His parents supported the decision to try Andrew as an adult, not Andrew's decision to kill his little brother.

I would label this a case of an ambiguous antecedent, despite the fact that it doesn't involve pronouns. The first part of the sentence contains two actions (the state charging Andrew as an adult and Andrew murdering Conner), both of which involved a decision, so the word "decision" is almost like a pronoun that could work with either of the two antecedents. And because "murdering his brother" comes later in the sentence, it seems to me that it's most easily read that way.

I tried it out on my teenage daughter this morning before she even had a chance to eat her breakfast. I gave her no context from the headline or intro to the story, which did mention the fact that "the parents backed the decision to charge the 17-year-old as an adult." I just read it as it's shown above and asked her what it meant.

Her eyes got kind of round, and she paused. Then she asked me to read it again. After the second reading, she gave me a look that seemed to say, What is wrong with people these days? (Then I let her know the intended meaning. I'm not that cruel.)

Here are a couple of less defamatory examples of ambiguous antecedents:

  • "The spinning wheel stood on the ancient parapet before it was dismantled." (From the Abacus Educational Services SAT prep site.)
  • "Tim told his brother he was working too hard." (From the University of Calgary's online grammar course.)
  • "I drank hot tea instead of my usual orange juice this morning because it was cloudy."
  • "Edna refuses to meet with the accountants at their offices because she says they smell funny." (The latter two examples are from the Sacramento Business Journal's Write Angle column by Jeff March and Marti Childs.)
Well, I guess the last one was kind of defamatory.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Such a frequent mistake...I wanted to work a bad antecedent into my commeht, but my creative error-making skills abandoned me!

Carmella said...

This obit headline caught my eye for obvious reasons on the same day, same paper...though not a bad antecedent, just an example of getting a bit lost in cleverness...

"George Weckman relished life of serving dogs"

I have been thinking about George the hot dog vendor ever since I read this...wondering if he would have found it amusing.