I haven’t written much about grammar recently and it has begun to bother me. A few of you will understand this: grammar is a great refuge for me. If politics or my personal life are getting to be too much, I can curl up with Fowler or a number of other great writing writers and escape it all. When I was younger, math would do that for me. But my brain has changed and now math is either trivial or exhausting. But I can lose hours diving into the intricacies of the gerund. Also, there are my continuing efforts to simplify the language and slowly reduce the number of things I have to worry about, like my campaigns to stop using the words annunciate and blonde.
Today, I have nothing so sexy as jettisoning old redundant words and French gender identifiers in English. I came upon a sentence this morning by the fine political writer Martin Longman over at Political Animal, In Colorado, Same As It Ever Was. But before I get to it, please remember I’m not attacking him. Blogging is a fast-paced business with little or no support staff and absolutely no copy editors. What’s more, I think Longman is a better writer than I am. Regardless, he wrote:
What he just mentioned was an article from three years ago by Steve Benen that discussed Buck’s extremist positions. So there really is no context for this sentence and it completely confused me. I didn’t know who was far ahead in the polls. My best guess was that it is Buck, but it wasn’t clear. Even worse, if we assume that Buck is ahead, we can only assume that he is far ahead of Udall. Knowing what I know of Colorado politics, that didn’t sound right. So I clicked over and got the information. Here is what Longman should have written:
I understand why he didn’t write the sentence that way. This is an issue that I struggle with constantly—I think all careful writers do. You don’t want to write sentences like, “Cindy walked up to Andrea, and Andrea looked away, Andrea started to cry and Cindy said, ‘Buck up!'” That’s just awful and there are easy ways to fix it. But it is definitely better than, “Cindy walked up to Andrea, and she looked away, she started to cry and she said, ‘Buck up!'” (Obviously: “Cindy walked up to Andrea who looked away and started to cry. ‘Buck up!’ Cindy said. And then Andrea punched her in the mouth because anyone who ever says ‘buck up’ is an asshole.”)
As I wrote before, All Is Clarity. The first thing we must do as writers is be clear. There are other things we can do, but what I think most writers find is that if they are clear, their particular style will shine through. Now it may be a tired style that no one wants to read. But the constant struggle for clarity will help the style too. For one thing, clarity tends to eliminate cliches, which are the biggest barrier to a compelling style. And don’t think I’m speaking from on high. My work is riddled with cliches, like the way I started the sentence before last, “For one thing.” Yikes!
But pronouns are a big problem for us. We need to watch out for them. And it is always better for a sentence to be clumsy than unclear.