Monday, November 10, 2014

The uninhabited clause (22)

The Uninhabited Clause* is a clause that has a non-human subject: a thing or an idea as opposed to a person or group of persons. There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses, but when we use a lot of them, we bore and exhaust our readers. They prefer reading about people to reading about things or ideas.


For example, here are the first two paragraphs of an article by two economics professors at Columbia University:

The extent of, and changes in, intergenerational mobility of wealth are central to understanding dynamics of wealth inequality, but are hard to measure. In this paper we argue that the share of women among the wealthiest Americans can be used as a proxy for the importance of inherited relative to self-made wealth. This approach assumes that women tend to inherit rather than make great fortunes. If so, a higher share of women among the wealthy would reflect a rise in inherited wealth at the top, and, thus, lower wealth mobility. Conversely, higher wealth mobility where self-made wealth replaces inherited wealth would result in more men at the top of the wealth distribution. Judged by this proxy, and corroborated by various data sources, wealth mobility decreased in the period 1925–1969 and increased thereafter. Such a pattern is consistent with an important role for technological change in shaping the wealth distribution, and can provide an explanation for why wealth concentration has remained stable, despite increasing income concentration in the last three decades.
Over the past century, the share of women among the very wealthy followed an inverse-U pattern, peaking in the late 1960s. According to estate tax returns, in 1925 one-quarter of the wealthiest 0.01 percent were women. This fraction rose rapidly through World War II (WWII) and then more slowly to peak in 1969, when women neared parity with men. Since then, the decline has been marked. By 2000, women’s share had fallen to one-third, its prewar level. While the rise was evident among all wealth groups in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution, the decline was confined to the very top. Figure 1A graphs the share of women for four different groups in the top 1 percent among decedents by year. Figure 1B does the same for the “living” population with the help of estate-multipliers (a method that treats death as a random sampling device and uses mortality rates by age and gender to infer the distribution of wealth among the living, as described in the Data Appendix).


The professors take an interesting topic – wealth – and make it sound academic and boring. In the first two paragraphs, they use 19 uninhabited clauses:

extent and changes are (and) are
share can be used
approach assumes
share would reflect (and) lower
mobility would result
wealth replaces
mobility decreased (and) increased
pattern is (and) can provide
concentration has remained
share followed
one-quarter were
fraction rose
decline has been
share had fallen
rise was evident
decline was confined
Figure 1A graphs
Figure 1B does
that (method) treats (and) uses

And only 3 inhabited clauses:

we argue
women tend
women neared

When we use a lot of of uninhabited clauses, we are in effect telling our readers: “Nothing’s happening here. Stop reading this. Go read a graphic novel.”

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. Otherwise, you risk sounding academic and boring.

Note: For comparison, my portion of the text in this post includes 6 uninhabited and 12 inhabited clauses.
*My coinage, so far as I know.

See disclaimer.

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