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.
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 Specterâ™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.
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.
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.
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 neednâ™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.)
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.)
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.
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.