Monday, May 31, 2010

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (9)

Today we look again at the overuse of the uninhabited clause, a form of bad diction. I use the phrase “uninhabited clause” to describe a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. It is a main clause that has no people in it.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an uninhabited clause. But when we use a lot of them, we tire and irritate our readers.

An example of the overuse of the uninhabited clause

Today’s example is an excerpt from an essay titled “Wind Power,” in which the author discusses public statements of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Here are two consecutive paragraphs from the essay, with the subject of each main clause in boldface:

“In his own way, Geithner – along with his predecessor, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, et al. – has been generating his own form of wind power in an effort to disguise the corporate-state self-serving ends that have, for decades, underlain government economic policies. There is an increased public consciousness of the realpolitik at work in the halls of state that makes it difficult for intelligent minds to any longer indulge the establishment-serving media’s explanations of governmental behavior. Hollywood film studios would, today, be unable to produce a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a straight face.

“The giggling must have commenced even in the congressional hearing room when Mr. Geithner began his public catechisms about how the conferral of hundreds of billions of dollars on AIG was undertaken for the benefit of American taxpayers. Nor was his self-contradiction more evident than when he first declared that trust in the financial system required disclosure and transparency, but later warned that it would be a grave mistake to make public the machinations of the Federal Reserve Board. Such actions (i.e., exposure to the American people about how the Fed actually operates) would destroy this agency’s ‘independence.’ There was even some suggestion that the cause of ‘national security’ had been invoked early on when the AIG bailout was being considered! Such are the consequences whenever hot air is disguised as cool reasoning.”

Critique of the example

I’m sure you can feel it. Whenever a writer uses a lot of main clauses with non-human subjects, his writing feels academic, theoretical and irrelevant. He conveys to the reader a sense that “nobody’s doing anything.”

In these two paragraphs, the author has used eight sentences, with eight main clauses, with eight subjects. Six subjects are non-human. Two are human: Geithner is a person and film studios are groups of persons.

Geithner has been generating
consciousness is
studios would be unable
giggling must have commenced
self-contradiction was
actions would destroy
suggestion was
Such are

The author has done other things that further increase the academic feel of the text: he has used 2.8 clauses per sentence (high), and he has used 28.3 words per sentence (high). All else being equal, the higher we make those numbers go, the more we risk tiring and irritating our readers.

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your prose is bloodless, conduct this test. Select a paragraph or two. Then take out a pen and circle every non-human subject of every main clause. Then read aloud all those non-human subjects and their verbs, as in the list above. You will see, hear and feel the lifelessness of your copy. Where possible, put in some people. It will make your prose feel more alive to the reader.

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

See disclaimer.

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