Skip to content

Thursday Tip: Repeating a key term

March 29, 2012

Repetition–far too often avoided–can be a powerful rhetorical device. It can bring order and balance to a sentence’€s parts. And it can rivet a word to the reader’€s frontal lobe with more impact than elegant variation ever could. This week’€s Tip is on repeating a word.

Repeating a word increases its power in the sentence by forcing the reader to reconsider its meaning and that of the words it frames or modifies. Consider this example, from Henry Luce’s The American Century:

In this whole matter of War and Peace especially, we have been at various times and in various ways false to ourselves, false to each other, false to the facts of history, and false to the future.

The string of falses hammers the point and instills rhythm.

This edit counteracts the tendency of some writers to prefer synonyms over repetition. Perhaps intended to show a commend of language, this approach can confuse:

A delightful fairy tale has taken hold lately in some economic policy circles: the economy is poised for a glorious burst of sustained, 1960s-style growth without inflation. It’s a story told by a spectrum of influential figures, from conservatives to liberal luminaries. Like most good fables, this one features a horrible monster who is blocking the path to eternal happiness. That would be the chairman of the Fed, who cannot see that the economic terrain has shifted.

The three terms–€”tale, story, fable–€”force the reader to figure out whether the three are different or the same. The example is doctored slightly from the original. Sticking with fairy tale, tale, and tales, as Paul Krugman did in The New York Times Magazine, makes the passage more coherent–€”with the repeated terms binding the sentences:

A delightful fairy tale has taken hold lately in some economic policy circles: the economy is poised for a glorious burst of sustained, 1960s-style growth without inflation. It’€s a tale told by a spectrum of influential figures, from conservatives to liberal luminaries. Like most good tales, this one features a horrible monster who is blocking the path to eternal happiness. That would be the chairman of the Fed, who cannot see that the economic terrain has shifted.

Tuesday Thought: Stark attachments 1

March 27, 2012

One thing that distinguishes professional writing from the common is the variety of sentence structures. Most writers cling to five or six basic types that they’ve used since high school or college. Professional writers use many more, perhaps 40 or 50. Among those are what we (at ClearWriter) call stark attachments–phrases attached as appositives or similar forms at the front of a sentence, in the middle, or at the back.

Start by looking for two sentences or independent clauses with the same subject.

Here is a starkly attached leading part from this week’€™s New Yorker, in Michael Specter’s piece on carbon emissions, ‘Big Foot.’

Compelled by economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness, many corporations now seem to compete as vigorously to display their environmental credentials as they do to sell their products.

The common version would have been:

Many corporations now seem to compete as vigorously to display their environmental credentials as they do to sell their products. They are compelled by economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness.

Note the pattern of two sentences with the same subject: Many corporations and they.

The stark attachment could also have been an inner part, after the subject:

Many corporations, compelled by economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness, now seem to compete as vigorously to display their environmental credentials as they do to sell their products.

Or it could have been a trailing part:

Many corporations now seem to compete as vigorously to display their environmental credentials as they do to sell their products, compelled by economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness.

Where you place a stark attachment usually depends on the emphasis you wish to give it. The earlier, the more emphatic.

Here’€™s another sentence from the same piece:

Thomas takes a utilitarian approach to the problem, attempting to convince corporations, pension funds, and other investors that the price of continuing to ignore the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions will soon greatly exceed the cost of reducing them.

Dictating the placement here is logic: the second clause elaborates on the first.

The common version would have been:

Thomas takes a utilitarian approach to the problem. He attempts to convince corporations, pension funds, and other investors that the price of continuing to ignore the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions will soon greatly exceed the cost of reducing them.

Again, note the pattern: two sentences with the same subject, always a candidate for folding part of one sentence into the front, middle, or back of the other.

Here’s another example:

I asked if they paid attention to labels. ‘Of course,’ the man said. He looked a bit insulted.

And here is how Specter attached the second sentence to the back of the one preceding it:

I asked if they paid attention to labels. ‘Of course,’ the man said, looking a bit insulted.

Trailing parts often start with -ing words (gerunds, participles).

Other candidates for stark attachments are sentences with two or more verbs, with a who or which clause, or with a long prepositional phrase–€”each to be covered in coming posts.

Thursday Tip: Using verb-free elements to add pace

March 22, 2012

Two weeks ago, our Tip showed how to use semicolons to tightly link independent clauses parallel in construction. If parallel independent clauses repeat a verb, you can often drop the second verb, leaving the reader to insert it mentally. Consider this example from the New York Times Book Review:

Her novels registered these events most secretly, her letters not at all.

The flatter version might have been and her letters registered them not at all. Dropping and and registered them shortens the sentence and picks up the cadence. This omission of a word or words (ellipsis–or more specifically, zeugma, according to my colleague Nick) also works with a semicolon: Here’s an example from Alfred Jazin’s On Native Grounds:

Frank Norris became a naturalist out of his admiration for Zola; Stephen Crane, because the ferocious pessimism of naturalism suited his temperament exactly.

Note that when a semicolon connects two clauses, a comma often stands in for the omitted words.

Omitting the verb in a series of clauses can slam together subjects and objects, tightening the links. Here’s an example from an old issue of The Economist from the ClearWriter archives:

The building was cramped, working capital scarce, infrastructure fragile, and the bureaucracy tiresome.

But be sure that the verb tense and number (was, in this case) apply to each shortened clause: was scarce, was fragile, was tiresome. Some writers (incorrectly) omit a plural verb when the guiding verb is singular, as in the following slightly adjusted example:

The building was cramped, working capital scarce, infrastructure fragile, and the bureaucrats tiresome.

The singular verb was no longer fits all the clauses, upsetting the power and rhythm of the sentence, thus the switch to bureaucracy.

Tuesday Thought: Weak nouns

March 20, 2012

Last week I wrote about sentinel nouns, which push a working noun into a prepositional phrase. Many of those sentinel nouns also turn up as weak nouns, following a noun adjective that should displace them.

Consider this, from the Wall Street Journal:

Corporations have pared back their debt burden, but consumers owe more than ever.

Why not delete burden? Perhaps because it’s not the absolute amount of debt but the ratio of debt to cash flow. But even if that’€™s the case, readers would not be led astray by simply writing debt.

I confess that I spent a couple of hours hunting for weak nouns in this week’s The Economist and found none. But they do turn up frequently in the writing of our clients at large organizations.

Poverty levels increased Poverty increased

Price levels rose Prices rose

For corporate responsibility purposes For corporate responsibility

Part of a bank workout strategy Part of a bank workout

Light manufacturing activities Light manufacturing

Singapore’€™s growth performance Singapore’s growth

In the telecommunications sector In telecommunications

Policies to curb inflationary pressures Policies to curb inflation

Foreign exchange carry-trade markets Foreign exchange carry trade

Easier money supplies Easier money

More flexible exchange rate regimes More flexible exchange rates

As with others of these edits, we’€re compiling a list of weak nouns, identifying when to cut them and when to leave them. Please send us any you might find.

Thursday Tip: Using colons to link elaborations

March 15, 2012

Like the semicolon, the colon joins in one sentence two ideas or elements that might be expressed in separate sentences, strengthening the bond. The second elements are often definitions, elaborations, or embellishments. Here’s an example from The Economist’s™ The day after Super Tuesday‘:

He [Barack Obama] also snatched two prizes on the coast: tiny Delaware and, more symbolically, Connecticut.

Note that what follows the colon needn’t be a complete sentence. Consider another example from The Economist’€s ‘€œSpeaking in tongues‘:

Indonesia’s national language’a version of Malay called Bahasa Indonesia or just Indonesian’€”is unusual in that it is not the tongue of a dominant group: only about 3% of the population are ethnic Malays.

This usage is dubious. Some style guides (AP, for example) advise against using a dash and a colon in the same sentence.

Another function of the colon is to introduce a quotation (The minority leader delivered a harsh rebuttal:) or a list, either in text (Three areas for action:) or in bullets (see below).

But colons are often misused. Here are three don’€™ts:

  • Don’€™t use a colon with for example (as in I’€™ve owned all types of pets, for example: cats, dogs, lizards, and ferrets.). The colon implies for example, which should be omitted.
  • Don’t separate a preposition from its object (as in Over the last year I’ve traveled to: Arizona, New York, and Cambodia) or a verb from its objects (For dinner he ate: soup, salmon, spinach, spaghetti, salad, and sherbet.).
  • Don’€™t use colons where you should use semicolons, or semicolons where you should use colons. Colons imply a direct connection between two ideas–€”and what follows the colon is subordinate to what precedes it (think of it as shorthand for that is). And remember that semicolons should generally join two ideas only if both would be complete sentences taken alone, sentences that should be parallel when possible. (LeTourneau University has a quick primer on the basic differences between colons and semicolons if you need a refresher.)

Tuesday Thought: Slashing sentinel nouns

March 12, 2012

One of the main tasks in editing your writing is ridding sentences of unnecessary words. So, as I read the Lexington column in this week’€™s Economist, the following sentence caught my eye.

He [Obama] wants to use the combination of his soaring rhetoric and his broad appeal to change the weather of American politics–€”hence his admiration for Mr Reagan’€™s power to transform politics, if not for what he did with that power.

Combination is what I call a sentinel noun, announcing the impending arrival of a stronger noun (or two), relegated to a prepositional phrase. The standard edit here is to cut the combination of, propelling the reader to soaring rhetoric and broad appeal.

He [Obama] wants to use his soaring rhetoric and his broad appeal to change the weather of American politics–hence his admiration for Mr Reagan’s power to transform politics, if not for what he did with that power.

The sentinel noun doesn’€™t turn up too often in the well written and edited Economist, but elsewhere in this week’€™s are:

For many, the act of voting will be even more solitary.

Voting‘s an act, so the act of is dispensable but defensible. And:

The process of choosing the next leader of the world’s most powerful country, in other words, is still at an early stage. But it has already delivered big surprises.

Choosing‘€™s a process, so the process of is again dispensable but defensible. If the phrase is dispensed with, the two sentences could read:

Choosing the next leader of the world’s most powerful country, in other words, is still at an early stage. But the process has already delivered big surprises.

In the piece on financial regulation, also in this week’s Economist, the noun is the point, not a sentinel:

the patchwork of national rules and regulators that govern them.

to redesign the architecture of global finance.

The chances of an effective global regulatory regime are

the result of inadequate national supervision

the lack of teamwork between

The origins of today’s problems lie not

But take another look at the last example. There’s a case for cutting The origins of and changing the rest to Today’€™s problems arise not from or something similar. If I were short on space, I’d likely make that edit.

So these are some good uses, when the construction the + noun + of adds meaning. But it becomes useless when the noun isn’t working but is only announcing. As in, the problem of poverty, as if poverty isn’t a problem. And as in, the issue of early primaries, as if early primaries aren’€™t an issue.

The point is that a the + noun + of construction should become a cue for taking a closer look. Here is a starting list of sentinels to watch for and cut, along with the articles and prepositions that prop them up:

the act of the experience of the presence of

the adoption of the extent of the problem of

the amount of the field of the process of

the area of the form of the prospect of

the case of the functioning of the purpose of

the challenge of the idea of the question of

the character of the importance of the range of

the combination of the introduction of the rate of

the concept of the issue of the set of

the course of the level of the strategy of

the degree of the magnitude of the sum of

the development of the nature of the use of

the element of the number of the way of

the establishment of the pattern of

the existence of

(Our ClearEdits software flags all these sentinel nouns.)

Thursday Tip: Using semicolons to link closely related ideas

March 8, 2012

Starting with and, but, or or opens a sentence swiftly. Sometimes, however, two clauses are best joined more subtly. For that, there are semicolons, the subject of this week’s Tip.

Semicolons can join independent clauses (either would be a sentence on its own) without using a conjunction, binding two or three closely related ideas. Ideally, the clauses are parallel in construction. Semicolons signal a pause longer than a comma, but shorter than a period.

Some writers use them to link closely related clauses in a paragraph, to distinguish them from more loosely related clauses and ideas. Here’s an example from Michael Powell and Michael Cooper’s ‘For Giuliani, a Dizzying Free Fall‘ in the New York Times:

But politics does not march to a military beat; it is a business of shifting loyalties. By Tuesday night, even those voters who rated terrorism as the most important issue were as likely to vote for Mr. Romney or Mr. McCain as for Mr. Giuliani. And those who had voted early for Mr. Giuliani now felt a sense of irrelevance.

Or consider this example:

Alarm on Wall Street is business as usual; alarm verging on panic at the Federal Reserve is more difficult to shrug off.

That’s Clive Crook showcasing a semicolon at its best–slamming together two parallel ideas and constructions–in his blog entry, ‘The politics of recession.’

Our standard disclaimer (use flourishes too often and you’ll risk annoying your reader) applies to semicolons with particular force. Joining independent clauses with semicolons is a judgment of meaning and nuance–so some writers throw them in at every opportunity. Try to be more judicious.

Note

This usage differs from semicolons in series. There, semicolons segment complex or nested elements to avoid tangling the reader in commas:

I ate cereal and an apple for breakfast; a cheeseburger, fries, and a salad for lunch; and pasta with meatballs for dinner.

Tuesday Thought: Where have all the that’s gone? 4

March 5, 2012

The three preceding posts have been on using (or not using) that as a conjunction to link a clause to a transitive verb, a linking verb, or a noun or gerund. Today’s is on using that to link a clause to an adjective, infinitive, or participle.

With adjectives

That can attach clauses to adjectives.

He is certain that the bill, on the floor for the first time, will pass today.

Here it’s usual, with the intervening phrases between the subject of the clause (the bill) and the verb (will pass). But it may be omitted and is indeed unusual in:

Be sure you’re on time.

Note again that a pronoun (you) and verb (‘re) follow the adjective sure.

With infinitives

That can also connect a clause to infinitives (which can be a noun, adjective, or adverb).

Consider this example from ‘The Moral Instinct,’ by Stephen Pinker in the New York Times Magazine.

This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself as the Moral Majority.

The clause that morality itself is under assault is the object of the infinitive to lament. In such constructions most infinitives require that. Exceptions are some infinitives acting as nouns, again followed by a pronoun and verb.

To know you are accepted is enough.

For such infinitives follow the convention for the equivalent transitive verb.

With participles

Last, consider connecting a clause to a participle (adjective), preceded by some form of to be (such as is, was, will be, has been):

He is thinking that you should do it.

Here that could be used or omitted. But better still would be to switch to the present tense (thinks) and follow the conventions for using that with a transitive verb:

He thinks you should do it.

Recall that using that after think is unusual, especially when the subject of the clause is a pronoun (you) followed by its verb (should).

This post completes the use of that as a conjunction. But I do plan to update it with more examples.

Thursday Tip: Starting sentences with and’s, but’s, or or’s

March 1, 2012

The last few Tips showed you how to play with series and the conjunctions that link their elements. This week’s talks about starting a sentence with and, but, or or. For those of you aghast at flouting the dictates of your seventh-grade English teacher, it’s time to overcome that fear and at least consider this addition to your style.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction was common in 1776 (see Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations). It was also common in the early 1950s. Just look at any high school text from that era (trust me). It’s now back in vogue. Consider this example from The Economist‘s ‘Desperate Measures‘:

The deepening gloom about the economy may well warrant such an aggressive response. But the timing is puzzling. There is more than a whiff of panic about slashing rates little more than a week before a scheduled meeting.

The opening but preserves the link between the first two sentences–and emphasizes the change of direction. It’s more effective than the alternatives: combining the parts into a compound sentence joined by a comma (not enough punch), eliminating the but and keeping two independent sentences (the logic is lost), or joining the parts with however, placed at the beginning of the second sentence or in the middle (again, not enough punch).

The opening and has much the same effect. Here’s an example from Michael Grynbaum’s ‘Stocks Surge‘ in the New York Times:

The volatility on Wall Street came with the market at a 15-month low. And it followed another steep sell-off in European stock markets, which were disappointed after the head of the European Central Bank dampened investors’ hopes that the bank would follow the Fed’s lead in cutting interest rates.

As a single sentence, this could have been a blur, especially with the length of the sentence. The opening and makes the parts easier to grasp.

A nice rhetorical flourish is to combine an opening and and a but. Consider The Economist‘s Israel and Gaza: Scrapping for Power‘:

Since Hamas took over Gaza, Israel’s only hope is that its talks on a Palestinian state with Hamas’s rival, Fatah, which controls the West Bank, will eventually give Gaza’s residents the impetus to rise up and, if not overthrow Hamas, at least put pressure on it to make concessions. But the more Gaza suffers, the harder it is for Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to carry on those talks. And if, in the oft-discussed nightmare scenario, a Qassam hits a busy Israeli school playground, Israel’s politicians may well feel they have no choice but to launch a retribution that risks destroying the peace process.

With all the commas and clauses, this passage could be a slog for readers. The opening but and and signal the logic and flow.

But remember our standard disclaimer: use these flourishes too often and you’ll annoy your readers.

Tuesday Thought: Where have all the that’s gone? 3

February 28, 2012

Today’s post is on using or omitting that when connecting a clause to a noun. Writers seem to use it when they’ve omitted it in another part of the same sentence–and to omit it when the connection is clear or when there are other that’s in the sentence.

Consider these sentences, from Roger Lowenstein’s ‘The Education of Ben Bernanke,’ in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

By the time [that] President Bush nominated him to run the Federal Reserve, at the end of 2005, Bernanke knew more about central banking than any economist alive.

So, no that after time. Note that time is followed by the clause’s subject and verb. Also note the t in time.

Later in the same piece:

None other than Alan Greenspan has said [that] that constellation of problems facing Bernanke is tougher than anything [that] he experienced in the 18 years that he held the job.

The that after years could have been omitted, but Lowenstein (or his editor) might have felt that to be excessive, because he had already omitted that after anything–and after said, where it should have been kept for clarity, instead switching the adjective that to the (‘said that the constellation of problems’).

In the rest of the piece most other sentences attaching clauses to nouns retained that:

…the clearest signal that the…

…more than twice the inflation rate that Bernanke has delineated as…(omit that?)

…general notion that the Fed has vast powers…

…an indication that the Fed has added liquidity…

…the dictum that inflation would lead to jobs…

…the fact that the Fed relies on…

…the committee members that I talked to…

…the idea that he could be replaced by a computer…

…the risk that the troubles in housing would leach into the general economy…
But not in this sentence:

…of the sort [that] he had so often written about…

No that after sort, with its final t and the pronoun he that follows.

What’s at play here beyond formal usage and caprice?

It’s not easy to identify anything more than the seeming conventions mentioned at the opening of this post. Here’s a first stab:

Generally use that to connect a clause to a noun:

  • When there are no other that’s in the sentence.
  • When a phrase interrupts the flow from the noun to the subject of the clause.
  • When a clause or string of phrases separates the subject of the clause and its verb.

Possibly omit that:

  • When there are other that’s in the sentence (or even when there are none).
  • When the preceding noun or the clause’s first word has a t.
  • When the subject of the clause is a pronoun followed by its verb.

Always omit that when what remains is clear and elegant.

(I’m compiling examples of each convention and will update this post when I have something useful for you.)

Consider this translation from Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

That was the way [that] he always was alien to the existence of his sons….

Note that the translator omitted that between the way and he. Then, three sentences later:

It was in that way that the boys ended up learning that in the southern extremes of Africa there were men so intelligent and peaceful that their only pastime was to sit and think….

Here the translator used that between way and boys, even with two other that’s in the sentence. Perhaps it would have been omitted if the boys were a pronoun: they.

Learning that brings me to gerunds (verb forms acting as nouns). With the intervening prepositional phrases in the southern extremes of Africa, that cannot be omitted. With that phrase omitted or moved later, that could be omitted:

…the boys ended up learning [that] there were men so intelligent and peaceful….

Using that with clauses connected to gerunds appears to follow its use following the conventions for transitive verbs.

Usual Unusual Contextual

Know believe learn

Knowing believing learning

See our preliminary list for transitive verbs.