Yesterday, I posed a "What's wrong with this sentence" exercise re: the line heard on NPR coverage of Hurricane Irene:
"There was only one death in the area, but extensive damage was reported."
Thanks to everyone who posted or emailed an answer -- you were all right on the money. Here's a (possibly incomplete) list of what's wrong with that sentence:
As Bernie said, "It would appear that there was extensive damage to the person who died." Several others noted this too. In my opinion, the biggest mistake in this sentence is one that we read/hear all too often: The death of a single person is minimized.
American journalists also have a nasty tendency to dismiss the deaths of people who aren't U.S. citizens: "No Americans died in the plane crash that killed 30 people." Well, all righty.
Obviously, the one death in this report mattered to the victim's family and loved ones. It should matter to all of us. Loss of respect for one life reflects a loss of respect for all life. And constructing this sentence with "only" and "but" places far too much importance on property rather than people.
As Jo pointed out, the sentence is incredibly passive. We're talking death, destruction and hurricanes. No active verbs came to mind?
The Big Rabbit made an interesting point: Placing the most important part of the sentence -- the death -- at the end could emphasize it. People remember endings. They're like the P.S. on a letter. That message sticks.
I could rewrite the sentence for you, but there's not ONE RIGHT WAY to do it. There is one right approach: Think, then write. This sentence is a classic example of literally thoughtless writing. We all do it at times. We all need to stop. To paraphrase my dad, "If it's worth writing, it's worth writing well."