Separation Anxiety

Smoothing comparative phrases

Black Friday is coming! And this one will be as big as, if not more hyped and crowded than, Cyber Monday was last year.

Actually, this column has nothing to do with Black Friday, or with shopping. It has to do with comparative phrases. But that sounds so boring.

Comparative phrases, for the purposes of this column, relate one item to another. They include “as much as … if not more than,” “as big as … if not bigger,” “as good as … if not better,” etc. They often have as their anchors “as” something in the first phrase and “if not” in the second, as in “Walter Cronkite was regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, anchor of his generation,” though that’s not always the case.

Sometimes it’s unclear just what is “as big as,” “as much as,” “as good as,” etc. The first example, um, for example, says that this Black Friday will be at least “as big as” Cyber Monday was last year. But the intervening words, “if not more hyped and crowded,” distract a reader, who doesn’t yet know just what Black Friday is being compared to, or with. If a reader thinks it’s comparing Black Friday with another Black Friday, that distraction can cause that reader to have to back up and read the sentence again.

In the second example, the reader hears that Cronkite is “one of the greatest,” or possibly “the greatest.” But the greatest what? (After all, Muhammad Ali is “The Greatest.”) The reader has to wait to find out what Cronkite was so good at.

A good guideline for writing, regardless of form, is to complete one thought before starting another. Or, to practice what we preach: A good guideline for writing is to complete one thought before starting another, regardless of what form the writing is in.

That means if a comparison is being made, the reader needs to know what things are being compared before needing to know the depth, breadth, or scope of the comparison. In other words, finish the thought, adding the noun or phrase being compared to the first part of the phrase. Just take the part of the sentence after “if not more than,” (or its equivalent) and place it before that phrase.

To make it easier to read, our first example is better rendered as “Black Friday is coming! And this one will be as big as Cyber Monday was last year, if not more hyped and crowded.”

The Cronkite example is clearer it if it reads: “Walter Cronkite was regarded as one of the greatest anchors of his generation, if not the greatest.”

The longer the separation between the two things being compared, or the longer the distance between a modifier and the thing it modifies, the more chances there are that a reader will lose the thread and stop reading.

And you don’t want readers to stop reading any more than you want them lose the thread, if not more.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,