Things Better Left Unsaid

WORDINESS AND SYNTAX TROUBLE
or: Difficult Things You Never Have to Say

English is complicated enough without writers getting in our own way. Often we take a perfectly straightforward idea and, to make it sound academic, or because we think there’s something wrong with saying what we mean as simply as possible, we create trouble for ourselves.

To take a simple example, let’s say:

Teenage drivers are being ticketed for speeding proportionally more often than other drivers.

Our simple statement contains several small claims, all clearly expressed.

  1. that teenage drivers are ticketed for speeding,
  2. that other drivers are ticketed for speeding,
  3. that a larger percentage of teenage drivers than other groups are ticketed
    for speeding.

All three three ideas are amply expressed by our sentence:

Teenage drivers are ticketed for speeding proportionally more often than other drivers.

How many ways can we complicate this sentence?

1.  Unnecessary If/then

One popular way to complicate a simple expression is to add unnamed people and place them into a confusing and unnecessary cause/effect situation.

If the driver looks as if he or she might be a teenager, then he or she is more likely to be pulled over and given a ticket for speeding by an officer who thinks he or she might be a youthful driver.

In addition to unnecessarily complicating our simple idea, this sentence is also massively overpopulated with at least one female teenage driver and one male, plus an opinionated officer.

You may say that the new sentence introduces a fresh and useful piece of information about the prejudice of certain traffic officers, and I agree. But the solution is not to place everybody into if/then mayhem.

Instead, if you want to feature the drivers:

Teenage drivers are ticketed for speeding by opinionated traffic officers proportionally more often than other drivers.

Or:

Teenage drivers are victimized by opinionated traffic officers who give them proportionally more speeding tickets than they give other drivers.

Or, if you think the focus of your sentence now features the traffic officers:

Opinionated traffic officers ticket teenage drivers for speeding far more often than they do other drivers.

2. Accusing the Reader

Another popular way to complicate a sentence is to drag the reader into the mess, as if the author thought nobody would understand her argument unless he read about himself playing a part in it.

You are far more likely to be pulled over for speeding and given a ticket if you are a teenager, or even if you look like a teenager, than if you are (or look like) an older driver.

This method combines an if/then scenario with the uncalled-for involvement of the reader, who just wants to learn something, not get pulled over and ticketed by age-prejudiced cops.

You may say that the new sentence introduces a fresh and useful distinction about pulling over young-looking drivers while letting go older-looking drivers and I agree. But the solution is not to stick our reader out on the highway.

Instead, if you want to feature the drivers:

Youthful and young-looking drivers are often pulled over by traffic officers who would let older-looking drivers go.

Or, if you think the focus of your sentence now features the traffic officers:

Opinionated traffic officers pull over young-looking drivers for speeding far more often than they do older-looking drivers.

3. Complicating with May/May Not

Very often, when our sentences contain a “may or may not” construction, we make the tactical error of introducing our readers to the wrong idea entirely.

Teenage drivers are ticketed far more often than other drivers for traffic violations they may or may not have committed.

Clearly the point of this sentence is to suggest that teenagers are ticketed oftener than they should be, for offenses they did not commit. Why, then, suggest that they may have committed offenses?

Teenage drivers are ticketed far more often than other drivers for traffic violations they do not commit.

4. Falling Off the Uneven Parallel Bars

When we unnecessarily introduce a multiple comparison, we often create syntax trouble.

Teenage drivers are ticketed as often if not more often than older drivers.

What we mean is that teenagers are ticketed proportionally more often than older drivers. If they were ticketed just as often as older drivers, we’d have no reason to object. Unwisely in this sentence, we try to combine an “as often as” construction” with a “more often than” construction.

As often as construction:

Teenage drivers are ticketed as often as older drivers.

More often than construction:

Teenage drivers are ticketed more often than older drivers.

It’s pointless to do so, and we should cut it, but to do so grammatically, we’d have to say:

Teenage drivers are ticketed as often as, if not more often than, older drivers.

5. Misplaced Modifiers

Complicating our simple sentences also makes it more likely we’ll misplace our modifiers.

When they appear to be young, traffic officers are more likely to pull over drivers for speeding than if they look older.

Obviously the drivers, not the officers, are meant to appear young, but that’s not what our sentence says. The solution, as it is so often, is to simplify our sentence.

Traffic officers are more likely to pull over young-looking drivers for speeding.

6. One of these / One of those

Very often, a cop is just a cop, a driver is just a driver, and a situation is just a situation (not a character on a show about the Jersey shore). We create trouble for ourselves when we try to identify people as examples of a type of person, or simple facts as examples of a special class of facts.

Speeding is one of those types of traffic violations where the officers will often make the mistake of pulling over younger drivers more often than they should.

Nothing is gained by creating this special type of traffic situation, unless we’re building a list of such misjudgments by officers. Much simpler sentences do the same work without the messiness.

Officers pull over younger-drivers more often than they should for speeding.

7. The kind of / The sort of / The type of

Like a “one of these/one of those” error, a “the kind of” construction almost always creates more trouble than it’s worth.

The kind of prejudice I’m talking about is when a traffic officer pulls over a driver for speeding just because he or she thinks the driver is young.

Or:

Pulling over drivers because they look young is the sort of prejudice that happens when policemen think young people are more likely to drive poorly.

Nothing is gained by identifying the officer’s prejudice as a type of prejudice unless we actually name the prejudice, which can be simply done without resorting to “kind of” or “sort of” or “type of” language.

Pulling over drivers because they look young is “age bias,” plain and simple.

8. There is / There are

Sentences that begin with “There is” or “There are” can, and almost always should, be simplified to eliminate wordiness and confusion.

There is a prejudice against young-looking drivers that causes traffic officers to pull them over for speeding more often than they pull over older-looking drivers.

Our sentences features drivers speeding, officers ticketing, plenty of action, but its verb—is!—is the weakest verb of all. Instead of making a robust claim, it says “There is a prejudice.” More substantive choices include:

Traffic officers discriminate against younger-looking drivers.

Or:

Officers target young drivers for speeding tickets.

9. Any sentence beginning with “By”

They’re not always wrong, but sentences beginning with “by” are so easy to mishandle they demand special caution.

By pulling over young drivers more often than they pull over older drivers for speeding, traffic officers are prejudiced.

Explaining what’s wrong with this sentence is not easy, but if we reorganize the parts, we see clearly that traffic officers are not prejudiced by pulling over young drivers. That gets the causation backwards. Instead, they pull young drivers over because of their prejudice, which is very easy to say without confusion.

Traffic officers who pull over young drivers more often than older drivers are prejudiced.

Better yet, we can use a more powerful verb and still indicate the cause and effect.

Age-biased officers pull over young drivers more often than older drivers.

If you’re not ready to abandon “by” clauses, put them where they belong.

Age-biased officers discriminate against young drivers by pulling them over more often than older drivers.

10. Any sentence beginning with “With”

They’re not always wrong, but sentences beginning with “with” are so easy to mishandle they demand special caution.

With young drivers getting pulled over for speeding more often older drivers, traffic officers are prejudiced.

Explaining what’s wrong with this sentence is not easy, but it reverses the cause and the effect. In a sentence that gets the relationship right, the “with” clause contains the cause. Correct but clumsy:

With all the snow that’s fallen, classes have been cancelled.

Correct and SO MUCH BETTER:

Snow caused classes to be cancelled.

Clearly, the sentence about drivers and officers doesn’t intend to blame the officers’ prejudice on the fact that young drivers are pulled over, but it certainly sounds as if it does. As with “by” clauses, several solutions clear up the confusion caused by “with” clauses. This one might accuse too many officers:

Traffic officers who pull over young drivers more often than older drivers are prejudiced.

This one accuses more appropriately:

Age-biased officers pull over young drivers more often than older drivers.

11. Rhetorical Questions

Used sparingly, rhetorical questions can be effective in teasing agreement out of a reader on small matters, but they are terrible substitutes for bold, clear claims as thesis statements or topic sentences.

Rhetorical questions, which reinforce your point if they’re answered right, also risk introducing unpredictable reactions into your conversation when readers don’t provide the answers you want them to.

Needlessly Risky:

Is there any explanation for younger-looking drivers being pulled over disproportionately often than the age bias of the officers?

Needlessly Risky:

Why else would officers pull over young drivers more often than older drivers than their age?

It’s hard to imagine a proposition so obvious that no reader will be able to
imagine an answer other than the one you hope to elicit. In most situations, there’s
not point taking the risk. And certainly there’s no need to when claims can be made.

Direct and clear, no other reason:

Traffic officers pull over young drivers more often than they do older drivers because of their age bias and for no other reason.

Direct and clear, to suggest an alternative:

The only explanation for traffic officers pulling over young drivers more often than they do older drivers is that they are hoping to find drugs in the car.

12. In Class Exercise

Correct these sentences from the 11 “Things Better Left Unsaid” categories.

Copy and paste the sentences into a new post titled “Better Left Unsaid—Username.” Categorize it as Non-Portfolio/Left Unsaid and, as always, your Username category.

1) When the parents of a man or woman haven’t voted in their lifetimes, then their child is not as likely to vote than they would be if he or she had been brought up in a household where the parents always vote.

2) If your parents or the head of the household in which you were raised are voters, you are far more likely to vote.

3) As genetic testing has demonstrated many times, residents of death row often spend the rest of their lives there for crimes they may or may not have committed.

4) Harvard is considered to be as difficult to get into if not more difficult as Yale.

5) Admissions officers are more likely to admit students who look like the majority of the student body even when they don’t appear to be prejudiced in other ways.

6) My parole officer is one of those kinds of people where if I don’t show up for an appointment he always suspects me of doing something that violates the terms of my parole.

7) The only kind of person who won’t buy this car is the kind that doesn’t understand that the car costs more to buy but that the savings in gas will make up for the higher cost in less than a year.

8) There is a tendency among children who have suffered from being abused when they were young to be more likely to abuse their own children when they have them later in life.

9) By getting better mileage than cars that run on gasoline only, cars that can switch from gas to electric when conditions permit it have been created to help drivers save money.

10) With their ability to run on gas or electricity depending on traffic conditions, drivers shopping for a new car have to decide between hybrids and cars with conventional engines.

11) Who wouldn’t prefer to drive a car that can switch from gasoline to electricity when conditions permit?

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels. www.davidbdale.wordpress.com
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