Whodunit?

“Hernandez was discovered hanged in his cell by corrections officers at the Center in Shirley, Massachusetts.”

Those corrections officers oughta be ashamed.

In our complicated English language, each phrase is likeliest to be understood to modify the most recent previous phrase. We don’t naturally like holding the meaning of one word (discovered) in a kind of mental limbo as we read through the next phrase (hanged in his cell) until we arrive at the phrase intended to modify the first word (which phrase, in this case, is by corrections officers). We tend to want each phrase to comment on the previous phrase.

It’s a good policy to immediately follow a verb immediately with the phrase that modifies it — although in this sentence, just following the verb immediately with the phrase that modifies it wouldn’t save the day. You would get a different kind of mistake: “Hernandez was discovered by corrections officers hanged in his cell at the Center in Shirley, Massachusetts.” Some kind of gruesome miracle!

Better to start from scratch and write the sentence in the active voice instead of the passive: “Corrections officers discovered Hernandez hanged in his cell at the Center in Shirley, Massachusetts.” My theory is that the passive voice creates a lot of problems that it doesn’t get adequate blame for — like corrections officers hanging inmates.

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