June 2, 2015

Word Order Matters

I just listened to the hourly newscast from NPR. The last news item, read by Korva Coleman, began
President Obama will posthumously award medals of honor to two World War I Army veterans who may have been denied the highest military honor because of discrimination.
President Obama is dead? Really? And he’s still performing the duties of his office?

English is relatively insensitive to word order, but word order does matter, and sometimes it matters a good deal. Whereas I doubt that anyone misunderstood the above sentence, there really is a difference between “posthumously award ” and “award posthumously.” One can actually posthumously award something, in a will, say. President Obama did not do this. Ms. Colemen’s sentence might better have been something like
President Obama will award medals of honor posthumously to two World War I Army veterans who may have been denied the highest military honor because of discrimination.
Update, 6/2/2015, 1:55 PM: In the latest NPR newscast, Lakshmi Singh reported the story slightly differently, with “posthumously” in a more appropriate place in the sentence.

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