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Thursday, March 3, 2011

How Not to Write

Writers have a responsibility to their readers: to be as clear as possible. Indeed, we explain to our students that there are four 'C's of good writing: Good writing is clear, correct, concise, and compelling. And the order is important: Clarity is job one, and, if you do nothing else, be clear.

We were annoyed, therefore, when we read this sentence in yesterday's Times:

[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.

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.

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"


  1. It's called a comma.

  2. @Anonymous: You raise an interesting point. Yes, a comma after "cancer" would force the reader to pause and theoretically avoid the "hiccup." At the same time, though, that would be an "incorrect" use of the comma--there's no grammatical reason for it. A good example, therefore, of how clarity trumps correctness.

    Even though it's generally a no-no, we would have gone with the passive voice here: "whose usefulness in fighting cancer has been passionately debated by scientists."

  3. I was taught that the purpose of a comma WAS to make the reader pause. Thus the "grammatically" correct reason for it. But, then, that was long ago. Life was simpler then. Then, she HAD to eat that persimmon (NOT an apple)!