Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (10)

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 a passage from Rule of Law, Misrule of Men, by Elaine Scarry, with the subject of each main clause in boldface:

“[I]t is crucial for the country to recognize that there is one crime with a legal profile so singular that it can — even standing alone — convey the wholesale contempt for the rule of law displayed by the Bush administration. That crime is the act of torture. The absolute prohibition of torture in national and international law, as [legal philosopher] Jeremy Waldron argued… ‘epitomizes’ the ‘spirit and genius of our law,’ the ‘prohibition draw[s] a line between law and savagery,’ it requires a ‘respect for human dignity’ even when ‘law is at its most forceful and its subjects at their most vulnerable.’ The absolute rule against torture is foundational and minimal; it is the bedrock on which the whole structure of law is erected.” (p. 133)

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 this passage, Ms. Scarry has used four sentences, with seven main clauses, with seven subjects. All seven subjects are non-human.

to recognize is
crime is
prohibition epitomizes
prohibition draws
it [prohibition] requires
rule is
it [rule] is

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your prose sounds academic, conduct this test. Select a paragraph or two. 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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