Saturday, March 25, 2006

How to improve writing (no. 12 in a series)

It's sad to see a sentence such as this one on official letterhead, in a letter soliciting donations:

Many people assume X covers all the expenses for Y however, the reality is - it cannot.
That's a fused sentence or run-on sentence, two sentences run together with no punctuation between them. Add a comma before however and you get a comma splice, another serious sentence problem. (In formal writing, a comma works to join sentences only if it's followed by a co-ordinating conjunction -- and, but, for, nor, or, so, or yet.) A semicolon, the mark of punctuation often found before such words as however, nevertheless, and therefore, is what’s needed here.

But the writer here has made other mistakes, more difficult to name. Consider the awkwardness of a corrected sentence:
Many people assume X covers all the expenses for Y; however, the reality is - it cannot.
Part of the problem is that three nouns -- expenses, Y, and reality -- fall between it and X, its antecdent. Another problem is the awkward use of a hyphen (which should be a dash anyway) in a very short sentence: "however, the reality is - it cannot." A third problem involves tone: noting what "Many people assume" might be at least slightly insulting. Are you, reader, one of those who labor under this mistaken assumption? A fourth problem: the semicolon-however combination begins to feel mighty ponderous, like the work of a student striving for an unneeded formality of expression.

A better way to make this pitch might go as follows:
It would be great if X could cover the cost of Y. But it can't.
Notice how much more direct the revision is -- from 16 words to 15, from 28 syllables to 16 (half-price!). And now the writer sounds less like someone writing a ponderous essay and more like someone attempting to persuade an audience.

This post is one in a very occasional series devoted to improving stray bits of prose.

» Previous "How to improve writing" posts (via Pinboard)

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