We were annoyed, therefore, when we read this sentence in yesterday's Times:
You see the problem? Of course, what the sentence is saying is that scientists have passionately debated the usefulness of a particular tool in fighting cancer. The difficulty arises, though, because of the sequence of words "fighting cancer scientists." A reader stumbles momentarily, as he parses the phrase and comes up with an image of a tool engaging in conflict with scientists who specialize in cancer. The image is dispelled by the following "have," but the reader is forced to recalibrate--to recode the sentence and recognize "scientists" as the subject of the verb (which is actually "have debated"), and "usefulness in fighting cancer" as the inverted direct object.
[T]he Council has given the city’s imprimatur to a use of a medical tool that the National Institutes of Health has said “may not be ethical” and whose usefulness in fighting cancer scientists have passionately debated.
Inverting the direct object can, indeed, be a powerful rhetorical technique: "If you're looking for trouble, then trouble you shall receive." But problems arise when a desire to be compelling overwhelms the need for clarity. And clarity, we say again, is job one.
"City Council Earmarks Flow to Brain Scan Group"