Friday, October 23, 2020

How to improve writing (no. 89)

A sentence from a New York Review Books e-mail:

Thomas Tryon’s The Other narrates the tale of two identical twins, one of whom begins to terrorize the peaceful New England town that they call home.
I first thought Omit needless words :
Thomas Tryon’s The Other narrates the tale of two identical twins, one of whom begins to terrorize the peaceful New England town that they call home.
But wait a sec — what if it’s a tale of a town’s worth of identical twins? The village of the twins! The context for this sentence is an e-mail devoted to horror and science-fiction, so anything is possible, no?

But wait another sec — the phrase “one of whom” pretty clearly suggests that the story is about two twins.

But wait one more sec — without “two,” perhaps there’s still a slight risk of misreading before one gets to “one of whom.” Okay, leave it in.

I would like to think that the writer of the sentence went through the same process of overthinking that I just did. Sometimes writing can be improved by going back to what you had. Not every improvement is an improvement.

This sentence got Elaine and me to thinking about the word pair. Why say “a pair of shoes”? They’re just shoes, right? Only sometimes. An everyday shopper buys “a pair of shoes.” Imelda Marcos bought “shoes.”

*

November 25: It occurred to me to look up pair. From the entry for pair in Garner’s Modern English Usage:
Is it right to speak of a pair of twins — that is, does this phrase denote two people or four? Because twins are always two per birth, a pair of twins is two people. (Shoes also come in pairs, and a pair of shoes is two — not four — shoes.) Four twins are two pairs of twins. But the redundant phrase pair of twins can be found in print sources fairly steadily from 1800 to the present day.
Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts

[I read The Other for my tenth-grade English class. It was good then. Would it still be good now? And how many shoes are “some shoes”? This post is no. 89 in a series dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 4

Fresca said...

"a set of twins"?

Michael Leddy said...

I guess so! That wasn’t really familiar to me, but that’s something people say.

The sentence could also dodge all uncertainty with names: “the tale of A and B, identical twins,” &c.

E. said...

Two pairs of pants = four pants.

Michael Leddy said...

That’d be a bargain in clothes. :) But the OED has it covered: “A single tool, instrument, or item of clothing, consisting of two joined or corresponding parts not used separately. Usually with of and plural noun complement, as pair of scissors, pair of trousers, etc.”