Who did what to whom

May 30, 2014

Some sentences just don’t work. Take this first sentence of an article from my local newspaper, for example:


First sentences of newspaper articles are meant to grab the reader’s attention so that they can decide whether to continue reading or not, and if not, should succinctly summarize the article so that the reader can move on.

So what’s wrong with the sentence above? Well, the writer has succinctly stated a who/what/when/where/how situation in fewer than 30 words, which is quite a remarkable achievement. But I don’t believe that the writer has stated the situation clearly enough for a reader to understand on first reading. Why? Because they haven’t put like things together, and they haven’t used commas or other punctuation to separate independent ideas.

As a result, on first reading it appears that the liquor store was armed with a sawn-off rifle and took $800!

How could the writer have still achieved the 30-word goal, while making this sentence easier to read? By switching words around and by adding relevant punctuation.

Here are my suggestions for a rewrite — I think all are a little clearer than the original, and each took me no more than a minute to write:

Two men, who allegedly used a sawn-off rifle to steal $800 from two elderly women and a liquor store on Saturday, have been remanded in custody. (<30 words)

Two men have been remanded in custody after allegedly holding up two elderly women and a liquor store on Saturday. The men were armed with a sawn-off rifle and took $800. (just over 30 words)

On Saturday, two men armed with a sawn-off rifle allegedly held up two elderly women and a liquor store, taking $800. They have been remanded in custody. (<30 words)

Aside: The power of a word to imply helplessness

While writing these alternatives to make the sentence clearer, I realized that I kept writing ‘two women’ to parallel the ‘two men’. And then I had to add in ‘elderly’ as per the original , which made me wonder why it was necessary for the journalist to use ‘elderly’ in the original article. How does that change anything? The approximate ages of the men aren’t listed, so why are the women referred to as ‘elderly’? Is there some sort of gender/age bias happening here?

What constitutes ‘elderly’ anyway? Over 50, over 60, over 70, over 80, over 90? Something else? Was the journalist trying to elicit sympathy or empathy or even rage from the reader? Perhaps anger that this should happen to an ‘elderly woman’? I know plenty of women over 60, 70, 80 etc. who are feisty, fit, independent, and live life to the full*, and would hate to be referred to as ‘elderly’ as that word carries so many connotations of frailty and an inability to look out for oneself. Put ‘elderly’ in front of ‘woman’ and now there’s a not-so-subtle message than these women were somehow helpless and that we should feel sorry for them as innocent victims in this situation. Would we feel the same if the journalist had written ‘elderly men’? What does the age or even the gender of the victim have to do with how the crime is reported? The fact that two people were allegedly robbed at gunpoint should be enough to elicit rage, sympathy etc.

We don’t know if these women were robbed (the rest of the article wasn’t clear as to whether the women were customers in the liquor store or separate from it, whether it was the women or the liquor store that had $800 taken from them or a combination of both). We don’t know if these women fought back physically or verbally, though it’s unlikely anyone of any gender or age would fight back against someone who is armed.

What I do know is that on analyzing this single sentence, I got into a rant on the use of one word (‘elderly’) to imply a diminished physical and mental state, when it’s possible that neither woman was in that state, no matter what their age. I’m not sure that describing victims in this way helps anybody. In my opinion, the newspaper editor should have picked up on both the awkwardness of this first sentence AND the gratuitous use of a word that can imply so much more than just age, and made the journalist rewrite it.

* My Mum is in her mid-80s. She rides her bike about 15 km almost every day, she swims, she walks, she reads voraciously, she uses a computer, she has a Kindle and a tablet and a smartphone, she travels overseas regularly, she drives, she is socially active, and she’s hardly ever been sick in her life. And she’s still married to my Dad who shares all these activities with her. She’s very far removed from the ‘elderly woman’ implied in this article.


  1. I so agree. We should start a ‘anti-evaluative adjective’ campaign to protest all those times journalists evaluate their subjects. What also annoys me are people highlighted as mother or father when it is not relevant to the story – is someone who is not a parent less valuable. And all the other times, just one example-‘young twenty-year old women with her future in front of her’. A fifty year-old also has a future and values it. It’s everywhere once you start looking.

  2. As usual – thanks for a great post, but “sawn off?” Is that really correct? I’m wondering if that’s a British/Australian expression since I have never heard it in the U.S.

  3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sawed-off_shotgun
    A sawed-off shotgun (US, CAN) also called a sawn-off shotgun (UK, IRL, AU, NZ) and a short-barreled shotgun (SBS) (U.S. legislative terminology), is a type of…..

    Yep; my suspicion was correct…. :)

  4. ‘Sawn-off’ is definitely used in Australia a lot — enough that I didn’t even question it.

  5. If you think that’s dreadful, you should read some of the real estate ads that are published. Apparently grammar is a dying art :(

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