Sunday, April 19, 2015

How not to write badly (2)

2. Write sentences the right way round

I remember editing a book on Asian history in which the author insisted on writing sentences something like this:

As the Manchus had banned the queue, many men felt a loss of face

which I would of course correct, and he'd be very upset, mostly because I replaced "as" with "because". He insisted that one had learned at school that one should not begin a sentence with "because". Was he right?

Yes, he was. But not because "because" is on some list of words that you're forbidden to start sentences with but because you should not put the causal clause first.

Instead of:

Because I do not like foreign places, I staycation in Cornwall.

you ought to write:

I staycation in Cornwall because I do not like foreign places.

In the first sentence, the adverbial phrase has been fronted and generally you should avoid this, particularly in formal writing and even more so if your sentence is long.

Some are fond of fronting "while" clauses:

While they did not like the outcomes, the participants were enthusiastic about joining the programme.

 Which is better as:

The participants were enthusiast about joining the programme but did not like the outcomes.

I apologise for the examples I have given being rather marginal but I'm struggling to come up with anything better. You know what's bad when you see it though. Something like:

Because the individuals with diabetes have restricted diets, they cannot eat the chocolate biscuits.

is bad and:

The people with diabetes cannot eat the chocolate biscuits because they have restricted diets.

is better or:

While the implementation of the programme had its difficulties, it was considered successful

is simply:

The programme was a success although there were difficulties.

(Side issue: you should be very strict in avoiding impersonal passive constructions such as "it was considered". Write them out completely if you can or replace them with either something that explicitly states who did the considering or a more active version. "It is necessary to introduce new protocols on the distribution of memoranda" is better as "New protocols on distributing memoranda need to be introduced" or even better "New protocols on distributing memoranda are needed", since if there are new protocols, they will have been introduced. "It is thought that broader distribution is necessary to be fostered"? Who thinks it? If you absolutely cannot say, just write "Some think distribution needs to be broader". Note that in the past two example sentences, we got rid of extraneous concepts. In the latter, we don't need to say anything is being "fostered" because if distribution is broadened, someone is broadening it, and this is all "foster" means -- that someone is doing something. We'll say more about that when we discuss writing tight.)

The model for an English sentence is Subject Verb Object. Subordinate, adverbial or conjoined clauses should generally come at the end of the sentence. You can almost never be wrong if  you stick to this model (almost but not always: "I usually don't eat chocolate" is idiomatic; "I don't eat chocolate usually" is a bit awkward, and of course, there are times when adverb fronting is acceptable -- "Usually, I don't eat chocolate" -- but not so much in formal writing).

You can readily abide by this rule by simply doing the following. When you have written a sentence, take a look at it. Is the first word or group of words the person or thing that carried out the action of the sentence? No? Then you probably need to think again. There are of course many counterexamples but you should be able to justify them readily. (There's an example in this paragraph: clauses that indicate temporal succession can be fronted, so I write "When you have written a sentence" first -- I could write "Take a look at a sentence when you have written it" and that would be fine. See also "If... then..." "If you like it, you can take it" is fine and you can also write "You can take it if you like it".)

Words to avoid

however -- If you have a really long sentence, hooked together with a "however", you have likely committed the sin of writing a sentence that's too long and could just as well have been two sentences. Even on a smaller scale, something like "They had always wanted to go to Paris but they never found the time" is much to be preferred over "They had always wanted to go to Paris; however, they never found the time". "But" is much underused but it's a lovely, versatile word. Use it for most contrasted clauses and you'll be happy with the outcome.

individual -- Anyone who wants to write well must of course study Fowler. And this was a word he particularly deprecated. In his day, it was used largely as a facetious version of person but now it is a somewhat elegant variation for that word. Politically correct writers love it because it stresses the individuality of members of groups of people. But it is rarely correct to do this. A friend of mine loves to write about "individuals with autism" (it is the commonly used terminology). But they are simply "people with autism". Nothing about that phrase suggests they are not individuals. It does not, as some seem to think, imply that the people in question are identical or have the same issues, just the same as, for instance, "dogs" does not suggest every dog is a Labrador. You should only use "individual" when you specifically wish to distinguish an actual individual from a group and you will rarely enough wish to do that that you can simply exclude the word from your vocabulary. Oh, and forget using it as an adjective, lest you fall into such horrors as "an individual portion" (portions are by definition individual). You may use the adverb "individually" when you write something like "I spoke to them individually" (not as a group) but often you'd prefer some other construction anyway: "they worked on their own" is better than "they worked individually" for instance.

impact on -- It's easy to see how we drifted into this abomination. "Have an impact on" was already horrific but that was just not egregious enough for some. Or perhaps some, tired of being told that "impact" is not a verb, decided to create a new phrasal verb instead. Why even go there though? There's a perfectly decent English word that means what you want to say: "affect".

action -- Don't "action these proposals". Either "Do what I propose" or "Act on these proposals". Don't "Put these proposals into action" either. This is using nouns where you should use verbs. Remember that?

implement -- Nearly always when you write "implement", you meant to write "do" or "make", sometimes "create". I'll have more to say on using Anglo-Saxon words in preference to Romance words later. This is a good example of something many people don't seem to be able to avoid when writing formally: using what they take to be the more "erudite" word over the more commonly used one. They "attempt" instead of "try"; they "establish" instead of "make"; they "consider" instead of "think"; they use "implements" instead of "tools". To avoid "implement" you'll often have to recast your sentence but it'll be worth it.


At 11:42 pm, Blogger AJ said...

Guilty, guilty, guilty. Ugh. Not guilty when it comes to affect, though. I'd guess people avoid affect because they're not sure how to use it. They mix it up with effect.


Post a Comment

<< Home