Today’s “Hall of Shame” headline is a variation of a mistake that I have been enduring for years and every time I see it or hear it, I cringe.

Amanda Knox’s former Italian boyfriend engaged?

We’ll ignore the fact that it’s rather silly to pose this as a question to readers and the fact the presentation smacks of tabloidism. (It’s actually from an online news site, by the way.)

When many people read this sentence, I’m sure they understand that this refers to Italian citizen Rafaelle Sollecito who was the boyfriend of Amanda Knox at the time of her arrest for murder. They are no longer boyfriend/girlfriend, so he’s now her former boyfriend.

But if you look at the quote carefully, that’s not what it actually says.

Adjectives modify the noun closest to them, as a rule This quote instead says that Rafaelle is a formerly Italian but he is still Amanda Knox’s boyfriend. Unless Rafaelle was expelled from Italy and his citizenship revoked, this headline is an error. And it’s an error that seems to run like wildfire through the press for some reason I have yet to figure out. Laziness? Reliance on a single press service and accepting their errors?

This should actually read:

Amanda Knox’s Italian former boyfriend engaged?

Check your modifiers to make sure they are in the correct place.