Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hiding the agent (2)

In a column published today, George F. Will (photo) writes about the prosecution of a gun shop owner in Arizona:

“The gun shop’s proprietor, the name of whose shop might indicate familiarity with Arthurian legend, is on trial here, accused of selling at least 650 weapons, including AK-47 rifles, in small lots to ‘straw buyers’ – persons who illegally pass on the weapons to the cartels, thereby fueling the violence that killed more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.”

In a previous post, I discussed the tendency of politicians to abuse the passive voice in order to hide the agent. Mr. Will’s sentence quoted here demonstrates another method of hiding the agent.

In this 57-word sentence, the strongest word by far is “killed.” It’s a past-tense, active-voice, indicative-mood verb. Let’s go looking for its agent; that is, let’s look for the person or persons who killed those “more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.”

The subject of “killed” is the relative pronoun “that.” The antecedent of this pronoun is “violence.” So, in our search for the person or persons who killed all those Mexicans, we have so far identified “violence” as a possible agent. But of course, violence is not a person.

Any accessories? Well, we see that something is “fueling” the “violence” that “killed” the Mexicans.

Notice that this is a present participle in an adverbial phrase (“thereby fueling the violence”). The phrase modifies the verb “pass on.”

(Please bear with me. When writers such as the clever Mr. Will craft these labyrinthine sentences, it takes time to analyze them down to plain English.)

The subject of “pass on” is the relative pronoun “who.” The antecedent of “who” is the noun “persons.” The noun “persons” is in apposition to the noun phrase “straw buyers.” According to the prosecution, the gun shop owner sells guns to these straw buyers.

OK. So, the owner of the Arizona gun shop is accused of selling guns to straw buyers. The straw buyers reportedly pass the guns on to cartels. And this act of passing on the guns somehow “fuels” the violence that killed more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.

Now, putting aside Mr. Will’s tortured prose for a moment: we all know from reading and common sense that various people in Mexico who sell illegal drugs and form groups known as “drug cartels” kill a lot of people in Mexico.

Now turning back to Mr. Will’s sentence, we see that he has made cartels an indirect object. That is, he has placed the least emphasis on the persons who are most likely to have killed those “more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.”

I do not presume to know what is in the heart of George F. Will. But after editing prose for 41 years, I do know that skilled writers rarely construct labyrinthine sentences by accident.

The Takeaway: As you read “the mainstream media,” watch for examples like Mr. Will’s sentence quoted here. When you spot one, take a few minutes to analyze its structure. The exercise will help you learn how not to write like this.

No comments:

Post a Comment