Friday, December 19, 2008

Sequencing again

Just doing some sentence editing, and came across one where the sequence sounded okay but wasn't:

I'm going to teach this guy a lesson, gullible fool that he is.

The reader will get the meaning--- the guy is the gullible fool-- but because modifiers are usually placed against the word they modify, there'll be maybe an instant of confusion. This is actually amplified because "gullible fool that he is" is an appositive -- something that tells more about a noun-- and the word it's placed by (lesson) is indeed a noun. So it's actually a bit more confusing than if the appositive was against a verb or preposition (the reader then would automatically cast back for the nearest noun).

So recasting is made possible by the near-infinite flexibility offered by English syntax:
I'm going to teach a lesson to this guy, gullible fool that he is.

That is not quite as colloquial as "teach this guy a lesson", but perfectly fluent, as it's just reversing the order of the objects ("this guy" is the indirect object-- to whom-- and "a lesson" is the direct object -- what). That puts the noun modified (guy) next to the modifier then.

I know this is picky, and I know that readers can figure out most sentences. After all, we speak English, and seldom have the chance to edit our spoken sentence order. So our listeners have to have learned how to pick the meaning out of imperfect sentences.

But one of the comforts of READING rather than listening is that we can relax with a good author's prose and know that we won't have to work to understand the meaning. The author really ought to be doing the hard work of honing the sentence and making sure it says precisely what it's supposed to mean.

In fact, one of the weird attributes of a good editor is the ability to override that automatic mental fixing of imperfect sentences and stop and recognize that there's something wrong. I think writers should override that useful skill, if only while they're writing and revising.

So as you revise, read your sentences as if you're a fluent but clueless alien, who doesn't have decades of experience parsing conversation. Make the sentence say exactly what you mean it to say.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

So does the sentence now read, "I'm going to teach this gullible fool a lesson"?

While the original had a nice cadence to it, I sort of like how charged this new sentence of mine is. Much more judgmental and almost greedy for that lesson to be taught.

Edittorrent said...

That's good too. :) A lot of editing is actually reduction-- reducing a clause to a phrase, and a phrase to a word.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...


I wish I could do some online class with you or something like that. I'd love to learn these skills.