One Newspaper, One Short Sentence, Two Errors

My Florida friend Cami found this confusing sentence in the Miami Herald. (She notes that Opa-Locka is a section of the Miami area): “A homeless family of six was found by Opa-Locka police officers living in their car.”

No doubt, this is a tragic situation. But from a grammatical standpoint, the sentence raises two questions: were the officers living in the same car with the family of six, or were the officers living in their separate car? It’s hard to tell because of the use of the pronoun their in the phrase living in their car. Their could refer to either the family or the police. Make sure you can clearly draw a mental arrow from your pronouns to their antecedents (the word or words they refer to).

It’s easy to fix this sentence. The rule with modifiers (words that give more information) is to place them right next to the word or words they are modifying. A clear version of this sentence would be, “A homeless family of six living in their car was found by Opa-Locka police officers.”

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