Thursday, July 1, 2010

Coherence of paragraphs

Grammarians speak of the coherence of paragraphs. They call a paragraph coherent if a typical reader could easily recognize how all parts of the paragraph are connected. When a paragraph has coherence, reading it is like strolling through a park. When a paragraph lacks coherence, reading it is like slogging through ankle-deep mud.

Example of a paragraph that lacks coherence

Here’s an example of ankle-deep mud. It is the opening paragraph of an April 24, 2010 article opposing ObamaCare.*

“The American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association are both enamored of the Obama administration’s quest to socialize medicine. This position would seem curious, given the large majority of clinical physicians is strongly and vocally opposed. As the primarily academic and administrative members of these organizations might explain, it’s that they care primarily for patients, society, and the ‘greater good,’ while practicing physicians harbor impure motives. Narcissistic illusions of superior intellect and education are believed to bestow the right to rule others. After all, greedy clinician worker drones cannot be expected to understand the fantastic intricacies of their queen’s beloved policies. But as we subjects know all too well, the opposite is true. Isolation in palaces and ivory towers prevents accurate observation of the realities of the world outside. Instead these ‘leaders’ imagine the world as they wish it to be, scheming ever more elaborate strategies in a futile yet disastrous attempt to shape it to their will. The roots of this pathology can be traced to misguided belief in the good government fairy, insatiable lust for notoriety and power, and economic ignorance. Their most outrageous claim is the pronouncement that ObamaCare is going to be good for physicians and hospitals.” (202 words)

Critique of the paragraph

As I’m sure you noticed long before the end, the paragraph is confusing, tiring and irritating. It contains at least 27 errors of five types: circumlocution, faulty transition, abuse of the passive voice, elegant variation, and non-parallelism. Here is one example of each type:

Circumlocution: To say that people are “enamored of” something is a roundabout way of saying that they love it. Now, one circumlocution per paragraph won’t give readers too much trouble. But there are eleven in the example paragraph. Every few seconds the reader has to stop, decipher a circumlocution, and start reading again. These stops and starts cumulatively tire and irritate the reader.

Faulty transition: When the reader reaches the fourth sentence, “Narcissistic illusions of superior intellect and education are believed to bestow the right to rule others,” he does not easily recognize how this sentence relates to the previous three or the following six. He may eventually guess that the aforementioned academic and administrative members are the same people who have the narcissistic illusions. But non-fiction authors should not force their readers to guess.

Abuse of the passive voice: The passive construction “are believed to bestow” makes the fourth sentence even more confusing.

Elegant variation: Early in the paragraph, the author uses the phrase “clinical physicians.” Later, he uses “practicing physicians,” “clinician worker drones,” and “we subjects,” possibly as synonyms. Every time the reader encounters one of these possible synonyms, he has to stop reading, look back, and guess whether the author is still referring to the same people as before. Many readers resent the frequent use of elegant variation; they infer that the author wants to indulge his whims more than he wants to clarify his meaning.

Non-Parallelism: The author writes, “...they care primarily for patients, society, and the ‘greater good,’ while practicing physicians harbor impure motives.” Apparently he is trying to set up a direct contrast; if so, he should express the parts of the contrast in parallel form; for example, "care about patients, society, and the 'greater good' " vs. "care about profits." But he does not.

A clearer version

I rewrote** the example paragraph as two paragraphs and a numbered list:

Most practicing physicians (real doctors) oppose ObamaCare. Most academic and administrative physicians (paper doctors) support ObamaCare. Unfortunately, paper doctors dominate two powerful lobbies: the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association.

Paper doctors have five illusions:

1. That they care about patients, society, and the ‘greater good,’ whereas real doctors care about profits.

2. That they are smarter and better-educated than real doctors, who are too stupid to understand ObamaCare.

3. That smarter, better-educated people are entitled to rule.

4. That the federal government is a good fairy.

5. That ObamaCare will benefit physicians and hospitals.

Paper doctors have these illusions because they work in the isolated world of the hospital boardroom and the academic ivory tower. They know nothing about economics or the real world of doctors and patients. Nevertheless, they attempt to force the real world to conform to their illusions, while they feed their lust for power and fame. (153 words)

The Takeaway: Try to make every paragraph coherent. Your readers will notice and appreciate it. And they will be much more likely to understand, accept and remember your message.

See disclaimer.

*The popular nickname “ObamaCare” refers to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

**I did my best to guess the author's meaning.

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