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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.)

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