Thursday, February 12, 2015

The uninhabited clause (23)

Please note: This is a long post (859 words).
Our average is 355 words.

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 imply that nothing much is happening. In doing so, we bore and exhaust our readers. They prefer reading about people doing things.


For example, below (in green) are the first three paragraphs of a New York Times article about a rape. The reporters use a lot of uninhabited clauses; in addition, they deliberately weaken several of their inhabited clauses. I have interspersed my specific comments (in blue):

The crime was horrific


and the verdict stunningly swift.


Two former Vanderbilt University football players are facing the possibility of decades in prison

Inhabited. However, the subjects aren’t doing much; just sitting around waiting to go to prison, where they won’t be doing much either.

after it took a jury less than four hours to convict them

Uninhabited – deviously so. The reporters distort the sentence by using the infinitive mood (“to convict”) so as to evade using the more natural declarative mood (“a jury convicted them in less than four hours”). So even the jury didn’t do much; it didn’t convict – it just “took.” This weasely trick continues the “nobody’s doing much” tone.

for their roles in a 2013 sexual assault of an unconscious woman.

Another distortion; this one is worthy of a shyster lawyer: The reporters use “for their roles in… a sexual assault” to avoid saying “for sexually assaulting.” By doing this, the reporters insinuate that the football players didn’t do much during the assault – they just had “roles.”

Two more former football players await trial.

Inhabited. Again, although there are human beings in this sentence, they are not doing much of anything; they’re just sitting around.

At a time of widespread alarm and almost daily news reports about sexual assaults on college campuses, it is hard to imagine a case more likely than this one, captured on video by the assailants, to mobilize a campus.


As if to underscore how pervasive the concerns have become nationally, representatives from 76 Tennessee colleges and universities were holding a conference on the subject here, not far from the courthouse

Inhabited: The subject “representatives” refers to human beings, but the verb is weak: “were holding.” In other words, nobody’s doing much. Just sitting around and expelling hot air.

where Tuesday’s verdict played out.


But transformative moments are hard to come by


when a community’s population turns over every four years

Technically inhabited, because a community is made up of human beings. But it’s a weak subject of a weak verb. The reporters continue to insinuate that nobody’s doing much.

and its members have a deep investment in its reputation.

Inhabited, because members are human beings. However, notice what verb the reporters use here: to have. This verb and to be are the two weakest verbs in English.

So interviews Tuesday and Wednesday at Vanderbilt brought out horror

Uninhabited – and fiendishly clever. The word “horror” is the first strong word in the article. The reporters, writing about rape – a felony and a heinous crime – have finally, after 166 words, used a strong word. But watch how they immediately weaken it. They don’t quote anyone who says “I recoiled in horror” or “I was horrified.” They just say that “interviews… brought out horror.” The horror just floated around the campus like a fog.

at what had happened


and a distinct distance from it. Until the trial began more than two weeks ago, the episode seemed to elicit little sense of urgency


— in fact, the student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, found that


many students were not even aware of it.

Inhabited. However, the clause contains the weakest verb in English: to be


The reporters seem to be trying to say (and at the same time, trying to avoid saying) that something horrible happened on campus but the students reacted blandly if at all. But the reporters themselves are writing blandly. They can hardly bear to even type a strong word. In fact, they go out of their way – sometimes deviously so – to evade using any strong words.**

This is intellectually dishonest writing. The reporters sound like they are trying to get away with saying as little as they can, while still filling column inches to get paid. They and the editor who approved this piece should hang their heads in shame.

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. You may even sound dishonest and therefore untrustworthy. Be aware that many reporters deliberately diminish what they write about. Imitate such writers only if you deliberately intend to diminish what you write about.
*My coinage, so far as I know.

**In contrast, look at the words and phrases I use: deviously, dishonest, distort, evade, felony, fiendishly, get away with, hang, heinous, insinuate, rape, shame, shyster, strive, untrustworthy, weasely.

No comments:

Post a Comment