Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (4)


We frequently produce not-so-clear writing by using bad diction (inaccurate, vague or confusing choices of words). One especially damaging form of bad diction is the misuse of what 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. In short, an uninhabited clause is a main clause that has no people in it.

So, is the lack of people necessarily wrong? It depends on the context. When we write academic and technical copy, we use a lot of uninhabited clauses, most of them for a valid reason: to describe events, processes or relationships that do not directly involve people.

Example

For example, planets revolve around suns, water erodes rock, nitrogen feeds plants, and so on. As you can see, those non-human subjects (planets, water and nitrogen) are perfectly fine as the subjects of those clauses. They are in context and they are natural. And most readers will easily understand them.

But we should try to avoid using too many uninhabited clauses in everyday, non-technical writing, because most readers will not easily understand them. And there is a cumulative effect: when readers encounter sentence after tiring sentence with no people, they soon give up and stop reading.

Here are two real-world examples of uninhabited clauses that, for the sake of clarity, should have been inhabited.

Example

The July 30, 2009 edition of The Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece called “GovernmentCare’s Assault on Seniors.” Here’s one sentence:

“Driving these cuts is the misconception that preventative care can eliminate sickness.”

Boiled down to its elements, the main clause says: “Misconception is driving.”

It’s an uninhabited clause, and it is not very clear. For purposes of discussion, I will guess that the author means to say something like this:

Proponents of these cuts mistakenly believe that preventative care can eliminate sickness.

See how that works? Instead of misconception is driving we have proponents believe. Just putting in some people made the sentence clearer and more natural-sounding.

Example

The July 26, 2009 edition of The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), carried an article called “Casualties of War, Part I: The hell of war comes home.” Here’s one sentence:

“Soldiers say the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians lurked in the ranks.”

Boiled down to its elements, the main clause says: “torture and killing lurked.” This is an uninhabited clause. The subject consists of one noun (torture) and one gerund (killing), both non-human.

Strictly speaking, “torture and killing lurked” is not the main clause of the sentence: the main clause is “Soldiers say.” However, “torture and killing lurked” feels like the main clause, and “Soldiers say” feels like an adverbial clause – in the sense of, “According to soldiers, the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians lurked in the ranks.”

Now, what does the author mean by his sentence, “Soldiers say the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians lurked in the ranks.”? He may mean one or more of the following:

Some soldiers in the ranks had tortured or killed Iraqi civilians, and they felt guilty about having done so.

Some soldiers in the ranks had tortured or killed Iraqi civilians, and they feared that they would be ordered to torture or kill again.

Some soldiers in the ranks had not tortured or killed Iraqi civilians, but they had witnessed or heard about torture or killing and had been horrified.

Some soldiers in the ranks had not tortured or killed Iraqi civilians, but they feared that they would be ordered to torture or kill.

Or other possible interpretations. We can guess all we want, but the point is, why did the author use bad diction that forces his readers to guess?

Some authors do it merely because they are careless writers – or careful writers having a bad day. Other authors do it because they are (consciously or unconsciously) being evasive.

This author may have been evasive. I do not know what is in his heart, but I have noticed that many authors use evasive-sounding diction when writing about intense political topics such as torture. For example, they may want to believe that “our side” never tortures, and when they hear reports (true or false) about “our side” torturing civilians, they suffer the anxiety of cognitive dissonance and retreat into evasive language for comfort.

I cited a similar example in an earlier post; the author of that example also used evasive-sounding diction. To his credit, that author was honest enough to acknowledge that he was and is evasive about the topic.

The Takeaway: If you write for non-technical readers, try to avoid using bad diction and creating uninhabited clauses where they don’t belong. If you’re not sure whether you’re using this form of bad diction, try this old reliable technique: look at each main clause and identify the subject and verb. (Once you get the hang of this, you can do it rapidly.) If you find that most of your main clauses sound like circumstances dictate, institutions embrace, factors mitigate and the like, you will know you need to put in some people. And if you ever find yourself suffering anxiety as you write, try to determine whether you are struggling with cognitive dissonance; then you can decide, with a clear head, how to proceed.

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

1 comment:

  1. Much clarity has been gained from reading this post. :)

    ReplyDelete