Friday, November 28, 2008

The uninhabited clause (1)

On “The Last Ditch” website, we see an article entitled, “The nation we’ve lost: Twilight of Middle America,” by Kevin Lamb. The article contains this paragraph:

“One impediment for Middle America is its failure to recognize how the cultural, ethnic, and social undercurrents of the nation’s political life-stream affect the changes that take place in American society. Demographic displacement as well as the taboo of Middle American whites’ exhibiting any explicit ethnic or racial identity are reinforced by the influence of managerial elites (mass media, government, and corporate entities).” (Emphasis in original.)

The grammar is flawless. However, the paragraph is difficult to understand. There are at least five reasons. Four of them are:

Vague diction: e.g., “impediment” to what? And what is a “political life-stream”?

Odd choice of preposition: namely, “taboo of” as opposed to “taboo against” or “taboo on”

Passive voice: namely, “are reinforced by”

Wordiness: e.g., “changes that take place in American society”

The fifth reason is the use of a construction that I call the uninhabited clause. An uninhabited clause is a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. For example, in the paragraph cited, the subjects of the two main clauses are (1) “impediment”; and (2) “displacement” and “taboo.”

The best way to make an uninhabited clause clearer is to put in some people, if possible. Here’s my attempt to do that:

Middle Americans don’t recognize how the cultural, ethnic, and social undercurrents of the nation’s political life-stream affect changes in American society. By failing to recognize this, they impede their own [what?]. Managerial elites (mass media, government, and corporate entities) encourage minorities to move into white neighborhoods and discourage Middle American whites from exhibiting any explicit ethnic or racial identity.

There are now three main clauses – all inhabited. The subjects are: (1) “Middle Americans”; (2) “they”; and (3) “elites.” This one change helps a lot.

Also, my revision corrects the odd preposition, the one use of passive voice, and the wordiness. To correct the vague diction, I would have to ascertain what Mr. Lamb meant by “political life-stream” and what his “impediment” was impeding. As it is, my interpretation of his “[d]emographic displacement” as minorities’ moving into white neighborhoods is only a guess.

In scientific writing, the uninhabited clause is the norm: planets revolve around suns, water erodes rock, nitrogen feeds plants, and so on. The same holds true for medical, engineering, and other technical writing. That is all well and good. However, you should try to avoid uninhabited clauses in your everyday writing, because most of your readers will find them difficult to understand.

Uninhabited clauses also tend to sound academic, theoretical and remote. If you use a lot of uninhabited clauses, your readers may tune out.

The Takeaway: Try to structure each of your clauses – especially your main clauses – so that the subject of the clause is a person or group of persons as opposed to a physical thing or a concept.

Disclaimer: As I have mentioned before, I select writing samples in order to explain various barriers to clarity – not to focus on any particular writer’s shortcomings. So, I am not trying to pick on Mr. Lamb, who has had a distinguished career as a writer and editor. His writing is often delightful; for example, elsewhere in the essay cited, he writes, “Groping for the right cliché, Tom Brokaw noted that…”

*Also called primary clause, independent clause, and sentence.

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