Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Lede of the (still-young) day

An N.C. couple wanted on murder charges swindled their way across the country, authorities said Tuesday, claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything -- instead of fugitives charged in the slaying of the man's mother.

A lovely example of the misplaced modifier. Be careful not to overcorrect, of course; despite the occasional contention to the contrary, there's nothing wrong with using a predicative participle to modify the subject of a sentence. It's been a feature of good literary English for many centuries:

He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.

And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy.

And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.

The problem with the lede in question is that the participle has two subjects to choose from -- "couple" and "authorities," both plural -- and its natural tendency is to glom on to the nearer. Flip the attribution and the participial phrase and you get a usable lede:

An N.C. couple wanted on murder charges swindled their way across the country, claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything, authorities said Tuesday.

That still leaves a bit of a libel problem. "Wanted on murder charges" doesn't apply to everybody in the couple; the husband is charged with murder, the wife is charged as an accessory. Move the "charged in the slaying" forward:

An N.C. couple charged in the slaying of the man's mother swindled their way across the country, claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything, authorities said Tuesday.

It's not the King James version, but it covers most or all of the bases. And it doesn't raise any of the comic suggestions of the current version:

...claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything -- instead of fugitives charged in the slaying of the man's mother.

"Straighten your tie, Clyde. We'll take these rubes for all they're worth."
"You bet. We'll tell 'em we're fugitives charged in the slaying of my mother!"
"No, wait. I've got a better idea. We'll say we're Hurricane Katrina victims who've lost everything."

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