Who is doing what–and when? Word order matters.

I came across this sentence this morning in an Associated Press article about the accused al-Qaida sympathizer arrested yesterday in New York City:

He was under surveillance by New York police for at least a year who were working with a confidential informant and was in the process of building a bomb.

What was that again? When a reporter creates a prepositional phrase like FOR AT LEAST A YEAR, it is important to place it close to what it modifies, in this case UNDER SURVEILLANCE.  The subordinate clause WHO WERE WORKING WITH A CONFIDENTIAL INFORMANT refers to NEW YORK CITY POLICE, so it should be close to them.

Finally, it is the terrorist who WAS IN THE PROCESS OF BUILDING A BOMB, certainly not the NEW YORK POLICE, but when the reporter puts the word AND between WERE WORKING and WAS IN THE PROCESS, it sounds as if the police are doing both things.

This sentence needs a complete overhaul.  I would suggest writing it this way:

He was in the process of building a bomb and had been under surveillance for at least a year by New York police who were working with a confidential informant.

I hope you will agree that this is much clearer.


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