Welcome back to this series that highlights some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. This week I’ll tackle another affected writing style: those dreaded awkward sentences.
There are countless ways to construct awkward sentences, but let’s begin by focusing on three. A sentence can slip into awkward territory when:
- It is wordy.
- It is repetitive.
- It contains a dangling modifier.
It is wordy: Too many unnecessary words and phrases do not add to the content or the meaning of the sentence, and phrases like in order to, due to the fact that, have the ability to, until such time as merely add to the problem. Try this one:
- In my opinion, due of the fact that a situation of discrimination continues in the field of medicine, women have not at the present time achieved equality with men, and in order to do so, they need to be increased in number.
How many other snoozers can this writer squeeze into one sentence?
Too many unnecessary phrases slow down your reader’s understanding (to say nothing of trying his or her patience). The solution? Try rewriting the sentence concisely:
- Because of continuing discrimination in medicine, women have not yet achieved equality with men.
I challenge you to take your latest blog post, novel chapter, or magazine article and see if you can identify just one sentence that will improve if you delete a few of those unnecessary words.
It is repetitive: Saying the same thing two or three ways usually bores your reader. In The Bedford Handbook, Diana Hacker writes, “Writers often repeat themselves unnecessarily. Afraid, perhaps, that they won’t be heard the first time, they insist that a teacup is small in size or yellow in color; that married people should cooperate together; that a fact is not just a fact but a true fact. Such redundancies may seem at first to add emphasis. In reality they do just the opposite, for they divide the reader’s attention.
Here’s my example:
- In this day and age, modern scientists are developing a new type of super-computer that will benefit mankind in innovative and important ways, both now and in the future.
Sadly, that sentence reads like something from a high-school science paper. You’re a professional writer! You can do better!
- Modern scientists are developing a new super-computer that will benefit mankind in the future.
It Contains a Dangling Modifier: These are among my favorites when I’m editing because I usually get a good laugh as I imagine the scene. Join me in imagining this one:
- Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.
Can’t you just envision that poor little written excuse running ran late for practice?
Neither can your reader. As Big Dog writes, “Sentences like these are funny—but that’s just the problem. Any time you draw attention to how you’ve said something instead of what you’ve said, your communication suffers. If you’re writing something important, and I stop to chuckle over a faulty construction, the overall effect is lost.”
A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. A modifier describes, clarifies, or gives more detail about a concept.
When you begin a sentence with a clause, be sure it actually modifies the subject:
- Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse,
or even better:
- The team captain, who arrived late for practice, needed a written excuse.
Another common problem with dangling modifiers is the supposition that the reader understands who is performing the action. For example:
- Without knowing his name, it was difficult to introduce him.
Who didn’t know his name? This sentence says that “it” didn’t know his name. To revise, decide who was trying to introduce him. The revision might look something like this:
- Because Maria did not know his name, it was difficult to introduce him.
The phrase is now a complete introductory clause; it does not modify any other part of the sentence, so is not considered “dangling.”
Readers: do you have any awkward writing pet peeves? I welcome your comments and examples—I’d love to use some in my next blog, so don’t be shy, please comment away! Or you can e-mail me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I promise to respect your privacy.
Next week: Part III: Nominalizations
- http://themightierpen.co.uk/blog/2012/11/19/why-you-should-never-dangle-your-modifier-in-polite-company/The Return of the Dangling Modifiers (dailywritingtips.com)
- Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part I (changeitupediting.com)
- Clear And Simple Writing: Use Fewer Words (everydaygyaan.com)
- 25 tips to punch up your writing (prdaily.com)