Friday, August 14, 2009

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (5)

To review: An “uninhabited clause” (my coinage) 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 contains no people. And typically it contains no strong verbs.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with uninhabited clauses, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with butter. However, we sometimes abuse uninhabited clauses, just as we sometimes abuse butter. The abuse of uninhabited clauses fattens and softens our prose.

Lawyers abuse uninhabited clauses more than laymen do.** This is one reason why many lawyers write hard-to-read copy, even when they are not writing legal documents. Here’s an example of a lawyer-written article with a lot of uninhabited clauses. (To his credit, he is a better writer than most lawyers are.)


Timothy Baldwin, Esq., wrote an article headlined “Line in the Stand: The State Sovereignty Movement,” which was published on August 11. Below are the first two paragraphs of the article. I have boldfaced the subjects of main clauses and italicized the verbs of main clauses.

“On July 10, 2009, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin became the second governor in these States United (Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee is the other one) to sign into effect a State Sovereignty Resolution. These Sovereignty-type bills, resolutions and laws are an obvious and rightful response that the super-majority of the States in the Union are expressing to and against the usurping powers of the federal government. While the effects of federal tyranny are being felt more seriously than ever, history and human nature prove that the people of a society do not respond or revolt immediately against tyranny–though they have a right to. America’s resistance is no different. Fortunately, the sleeping giant is being awakened, to the dismay of our Centralist-worshipers today.

“An observer of history and these current events cannot help but draw strikingly similar comparisons to America’s political struggles during the early to mid-1800s, where there was a serious threat to our original form of constitutional government by the Centralists of that day. During the presidency of John Adams, the people of the States realized and rejected the pro-centralist view of Adams and his ilk (e.g., Alexander Hamilton), and a battle between the ideology of centralism and federalism thrust itself into the forefront of political concern.”

There are eight main clauses. Four are uninhabited:

bills, resolutions and laws are
history and human nature prove
resistance is
battle thrust

Four are inhabited:

Sarah Palin became
sleeping giant is (a metaphorical person, but we’ll accept it)
observer can
people realized and rejected

The eight main clauses contain nine verbs. Of the nine verbs, five are weak verbs:

is (as the auxiliary verb in a passive-voice construction)

Four verbs are strong verbs:


Note that the strongest of the strong verbs, thrust, is “wasted” on a non-person subject, battle. And, if we consider subordinate clauses, the strongest verb is usurping. However, it is buried: It appears in the form of a present participle modifying the object of a preposition. So it, too, is “wasted.”

Effect on the reader

Readers tire when they read many consecutive paragraphs like the two above, because uninhabited clauses are more difficult to process than inhabited clauses. To hold readers’ attention longer, put in a few more people.

For example, in the sample above, the writer could recast the second sentence:

“These Sovereignty-type bills, resolutions and laws are an obvious and rightful response that the super-majority of the States in the Union are expressing to and against the usurping powers of the federal government.”

into two sentences, like this:

Federal politicians are usurping powers. State legislators are are rightfully challenging the usurpation, by means of sovereignty-type bills, resolutions and laws.

Can you feel the difference? The change adds two inhabited clauses, both with strong verbs.

The Takeaway: Try to put people in most of your main clauses. In other words, try to use subjects that refer to persons or groups of persons, not things or concepts. Also, try not to rely too heavily on weak verbs such as to be, to have, and to become.

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

**Don’t sue me. I am merely describing typical traits. I am not saying or even implying that every lawyer abuses uninhabited clauses.

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