Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (11)

Overuse of the uninhabited clause is 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.

I have selected two 200-word passages to highlight the difference between uninhabited clauses and inhabited clauses.

Passage 1: Mostly Uninhabited

Here are seven consecutive sentences, totaling 204 words, from Thomas L. Friedman:

Indeed, Mortenson’s efforts remind us what the essence of the “war on terrorism” is about. It’s about the war of ideas within Islam — a war between religious zealots who glorify martyrdom and want to keep Islam untouched by modernity and isolated from other faiths, with its women disempowered, and those who want to embrace modernity, open Islam to new ideas and empower Muslim women as much as men. America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, in part, an effort to create the space for the Muslim progressives to fight and win so that the real engine of change, something that takes nine months and 21 years to produce — a new generation — can be educated and raised differently.

Which is why it was no accident that Adm. Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — spent half a day in order to reach Mortenson’s newest school and cut the ribbon. Getting there was fun. Our Chinook helicopter threaded its way between mountain peaks, from Kabul up through the Panjshir Valley, before landing in a cloud of dust at the village of Pushghar. Imagine if someone put a new, one-story school on the moon, and you’ll appreciate the rocky desolateness of this landscape.

There are seven subjects of main clauses. One subject is human; six are non-human:

NON-HUMAN - efforts remind
NON-HUMAN - it is
NON-HUMAN - invasions were
NON-HUMAN - which is
NON-HUMAN - getting was
NON-HUMAN - helicopter threaded
HUMAN - [you] imagine

Passage 2: Mostly inhabited

Here are nine consecutive sentences, a total of 199 words, from Malcolm Gladwell:

At a hearing on Capitol Hill in May, James Moroney, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, told Congress about negotiations he’d just had with the online retailer Amazon. The idea was to license his newspaper’s content to the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic reader. “They want seventy per cent of the subscription revenue,” Moroney testified. “I get thirty per cent, they get seventy per cent. On top of that, they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device.” The idea was that if a Kindle subscription to the Dallas Morning News cost ten dollars a month, seven dollars of that belonged to Amazon, the provider of the gadget on which the news was read, and just three dollars belonged to the newspaper, the provider of an expensive and ever-changing variety of editorial content. The people at Amazon valued the newspaper’s contribution so little, in fact, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it to anyone else they wanted. Another witness at the hearing, Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post, said that she thought the Kindle could provide a business model to save the beleaguered newspaper industry. Moroney disagreed.

There are ten subjects of main clauses. Eight are human; two are non-human:

HUMAN - James Moroney told
NON-HUMAN - idea was
HUMAN - They want
HUMAN - I get
HUMAN - they get
HUMAN - they have said
NON-HUMAN - idea was
HUMAN - people valued
HUMAN - witness said
HUMAN - Moroney disagreed

In Mr. Friedman’s passage, 17 percent of subjects are human; In Mr. Gladwell’s sample, 80 percent are human. You can feel the difference. Generally speaking, the greater the percentage of human subjects, the more immediate the writing feels.

Please note: I have compared these two brief passages from two authors only to discuss a single point of diction. I have not implied a comparison of their overall writing styles.

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your prose sounds remote, 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 remoteness of your copy. Where possible, put in some people. It will make your prose feel more immediate to your reader.

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

See disclaimer.

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