Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How to improve writing (no. 30)

From a New York Times obituary for percussionist Howard Van Hyning:

Mr. Van Hyning was also a collector who amassed a trove of vintage percussion instruments that he rented to orchestras worldwide. Comprising more than 1,000 items, his collection includes a snare drum built by Billy Gladstone, a highly regarded Radio City Music Hall drummer of the 1930s and ’40s. Its crown jewel is the set of “Turandot” gongs.
Note the slight bump in the road at the start of the final sentence: its of course refers to Howard Van Hyning’s collection, not Billy Gladstone’s snare. Any reader of these sentences can figure its out, but the greater the distance between a pronoun and its antecedent, the greater the chance for confusion. Consider this possibility:
Comprising more than 1,000 items, his collection includes a snare drum built by Billy Gladstone, a highly regarded Radio City Music Hall drummer of the 1930s and ’40s. Its value is estimated at a quarter of a million dollars.
Now it’s no longer obvious that its refers to the collection. So one might rewrite:
The collection’s value is estimated at a quarter of a million dollars.
In the original passage, replacing its solves the problem:
Comprising more than 1,000 items, his collection includes a snare drum built by Billy Gladstone, a highly regarded Radio City Music Hall drummer of the 1930s and ’40s. The collection’s crown jewel is the set of “Turandot” gongs.
Howard Van Hyning’s obituary describes a man who led a good life, doing something he loved and sharing his instrumental finds with others.

[This post is no. 30 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

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