Thursday, February 16, 2012

The uninhabited clause (14)

On this blog, I have often discussed the uninhabited clause* – a clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. For example, “Saturn is a planet” is an uninhabited clause (and a full sentence).

There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses. But when we use a lot of them, we tire and irritate our readers. And when we use them in utilitarian documents, we often sound silly.

For example, some pompous fool at the Payson (Utah) Junior High School wrote this sentence in the school’s list of rules (coyly called “General Information,” by the way):

“Outside drinks are not permitted to be brought into the school.”


The writer has created an unintentionally comical sentence. It is a command addressed to inanimate objects, not students. It suggests this image: A student is carrying a can of Red Bull in his backpack. As he approaches the front door of the school, the can shouts through the fabric, “Stop! Put me down right here! I’m not supposed to let anyone carry me into the school! It says so in the General Information on the web site.”

It would have been so easy, and so natural, for the writer to write:

“Don’t bring outside drinks into the school.”

The subject of the clause (which constitutes the entire sentence) is the personal pronoun “you,” which is implied by the imperative mood of the verb “bring.”

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing about abstract topics, such as metaphysics or mathematics, you should strive to include persons in most of your clauses.

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

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