Modifiers should cuddle up to nouns

English modifiers are supposed to cuddle close to the nouns they modify. When they stray, they almost always elicit a few snickers and sometimes totally mislead readers.

icon representing a submarine
Did debris cause this sub to sink?

The two-sentence example I have for you to use as an informal writing prompt for teens and adults is appropriate in both English and journalism classes, since it was a National Public Radio news item.

The news item

Display this news item to students and read it aloud to begin the informal writing activity. You may want to put the title in larger print or in boldface so students recognize the first line is a title rather than a complete sentence.

“Indonesian Navy confirms submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.”

“The Indonesian Navy on Saturday announced debris from a missing submarine has been found deep in the Bali Sea, ending hopes of finding any survivors among the 53-person crew.”

The informal writing prompt, part 1

Once you’ve read the displayed item aloud, ask students to identify in one sentence any part of the news item that is not immediately clear to someone skimming the item. Give them 30 seconds to write their full-sentence response.

Next, without asking for any oral responses, go to the second part of this informal prompt.

The informal writing prompt, part 2

Display and read this material for students: “Compare these two sentences:

  • The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after finding debris.
  • The Navy confirms a submarine carrying 53 sank after hitting an iceberg.

Now, write no more than three sentences in which you:

  • Compare the differences in the two sentences,
  • Identify which of the sentences makes better sense, and
  • Say why that sentence makes better sense.

(You’ll probably need to repeat the directions at least once.) Give students two minutes to do that.

Take another two minutes to have students explain orally why the original headline wasn’t immediately clear.

For journalism class use

If you are using this item in a journalism class, you could ask students how to make the brief news item easier for readers to grasp quickly. Inexperienced reporters invariably want to use alternatives to said. They also typically put the most important information at the end of the sentence instead of its beginning.

Newspaper readers expect the most important information to be at the front of a sentence and they expects an attribution after a quote to end with the word said. By meeting those expectations, journalists allow readers to skip over some words and still get the gist of a news story.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni