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Porn in the Slow Lane

My favorite newspaper, the Sunbury Daily Item, carried an article with this lead sentence last Friday: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”

This sentence immediately catches the eye because you wonder why middle school students were raising money to purchase porn in the first place. Moreover, didn’t the 57-year-old do us all a favor by stealing the money and keeping porn out of the hands of those children?

Well, reading further we discover that the money was actually being raised for middle school band and chorus activities and that it was the thief who purchased the porn, keeping good and evil in proper alignment. Of course, that is not what the lead sentence says.

The infinitive phrase “to purchase porn videos . . .” in the first sentence is closer to “middle school students” than to “57-year-old Lewiston man” and for that reason goes with the former and not the latter.

Restructuring the sentence to correct it in journalese is a bit difficult and the author probably should have just worked on a different story. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where a passive sentence might work despite the bad reputation this construction has among journalists. “$500 raised by middle school students was stolen by a 57-year-old Lewistown man to purchase porn videos from an Internet site,” is perfectly good English that states the case more clearly.

The active variant would be: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” This variant lets you pack more information about the middle school kids into the sentence but is a tad clunky.

Anyway, the sentence that went to press wrongly stated the facts by misassociating the infinitive phrase, thereby frightening readers with the suggestion that we had somehow swerved into the fast lane in the not-too-distant past.

4 Responses to “Porn in the Slow Lane”

  1. Brn Says:

    Not only is the “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” version clunky, it could also make it seem that the internet site was “from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” The passive is definitely the way to go here, or dividing the sentence into two.

  2. John Norbert Says:

    I agree 100% with Brn. The new and revised active version makes it sound as though the Lewistown man stole money in order to purchase porn videos — not in a store, but via the Internet — from those middle-school students in Beaver Creek.

  3. Brian Johnson Says:

    How about –first choice, but longer
    “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students AND USING THE MONEY to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”
    or — second choice but only one word longer
    “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students AND purchasING porn videos from an Internet site.”

    I thing “and” and the gerunds make it clear that the man was charged with two actions.

  4. Badri Says:

    I am not sure about your favourite newspaper, but I have seen newspapers in India use such lead sentences to catch the attention of the quick reader.

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