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Home > Publications > Quill > Don’t give readers whiplash


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Monday, August 25, 2008
Don’t give readers whiplash

Paula Larocque

What’s the first thing we should do if we are writing for an English-speaking audience and for a U.S. print medium?

Do I hear, “Write in English”?

Can’t go wrong with that answer.

Yet there are passages in American newspapers and magazines that challenge even native English speakers. For example, what’s the meaning of the following sentence from a column reviewing a home theater system?

“The speakers are half as small as standard theater speakers, but they deliver a higher audio quality than those that are much larger.”

Now, “half as small” means “not as small as.” A wall that’s “half as tall” as an 8-foot wall is 4 feet tall — not as tall. A stone that’s “half as heavy” as a 20-pound stone weighs 10 pounds — not as heavy. A cable that’s “half as long” as a 20-foot cable is a 10-foot cable — not as long.

So, according to this writer, the speakers are half as small as standard but not as large as large. The continuum from small to large seems to be:

• Small.

• Standard.

• Half as small as standard.

• Large.

Look at the second clause in that sentence: “But they will deliver a higher audio quality than those that are much larger.”

By “much larger,” the writer means “much larger than half as small.” He also means that these small speakers deliver a sound superior to large speakers. So, in this review, “half as small” actually means “half as large.” What did this reviewer think he was writing? Probably “half the size of.” What did he actually write? The opposite.

Here’s another sentence that gives readers whiplash because it says the opposite of what the writer intends:

“The vivid imagery of the text, with its vision of the final trumpet, is enough to turn on the creative juices of any composer, much less one as theatrical as Verdi.”

This music critic writes “much less” when he means “much more”: The vivid imagery of the text … is enough to turn on the creative juices of any composer, much more a composer as theatrical as Verdi. This idea might also have been expressed: Enough to turn on the creative juices of any composer, let alone a composer as theatrical as Verdi.

Here, from a goodbye column to a colleague, is a nonsense sentiment:

“We’ll really miss not seeing him.”

The writer means that they’ll miss seeing him, but he writes that they’ll miss not seeing him, which can only make sense if the departed colleague is back annoying them with his presence.

Here is another example:

“The cause was unavailable Sunday.”

An unavailable cause. What could that be? For that matter, what would an available cause be? This news story has to do with a plane crash, and a writer committed to writing English might have phrased it: “The cause of the crash is unknown.”

Here’s another whiplash sentence:

“He also had a cake, life-size, presented to her, complete with the right number of candles.”

A thing can be described as “life-size” only if a living version of that thing has at some point existed. Otherwise, we have no basis for comparison. What size is a life-size cake?

And another:

“He would quickly check the head guy’s office for sheet-metal ducks, ceramic dolphins or anything else remotely associated with unicorns.”

If metal ducks and ceramic dolphins are “remotely” associated with unicorns, that association is far too remote for me.

And another:

“His show may be getting slicker and more professional, but the man retains that soulful voice that adds the cutting edge to any veneer.”

Show me a veneer, and I’ll show you something without a cutting edge.

Yet another:

“Her voice is individual and stirring with a burnished and engrossing middle, a full low register and a gleaming top.” The adjectives here — and their application — are too abstract and affected to be clear to readers of a mass medium. I confess I don’t know what a burnished middle would be like, let alone a gleaming top.

And, finally:

“Herman said he was discharged after four years in the Marine Corps last August.” Maybe a month in the Marine Corps can seem like four years, but in English, this is known as a dangling modifier. To make sense, “last August” should be placed after “discharged”: He was discharged last August after four years in the Marine Corps.

Precise writing means writing precisely. What ends up on the page should accurately reflect the writer’s intent. If it doesn’t, there can be no hope for clear communication between writer and reader.

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