Don’t interrupt yourself

One thing that writers, and by that we mean journalists, fiction writers, public relations people, speechwriters and people of that ilk, love to do is interrupt themselves.

They do it with dashes, they do it when making comparisons, they do it just because they can.

Take our opening sentence. A reader is trying to form an image of what the sentence is trying to say, and starts with “writers.” To envision what the writer is doing, saying, or being affected by, the reader needs a verb. In this case, 16 words separate our writers from their verb, “love.” In that space we have things that change our reader’s view of what we mean by “writers”; without any action to connect them, though, the reader is left hanging, unable to “see” what those writers are doing, in all their forms.

That delay between subject and verb can be short or long. The long ones are the most dangerous, allowing a reader to lose the train of thought the writer is trying to establish.

Here is a recent example, from The New York Times:

But an unusual assortment of players, including furniture makers, the Chinese government, Republicans from states with a large base of furniture manufacturing and even some Democrats who championed early regulatory efforts, have questioned the E.P.A. proposal.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

We know that the “unusual assortment of players” is doing something, but we have to wait 25 words to find out what. In the meantime, we are given a list of “players” and a verb, “championed,” that isn’t the action of the “players.” We have to try to keep “the players” in our heads through a subordinate clause that runs longer than the sentence it’s embedded in. As the Times’ internal critique used to say, “Imagine reading that standing up on the subway.” Or, as it more recently exhorted: “As we’ve often noted, long, convoluted sentences are a disservice to harried readers, who may be scanning the paper on the subway or checking their phone in the checkout line. We don’t have to use See-Spot-run syntax, but we should do the hard work of ironing out our sentences so readers don’t have to.”

In this case, the ironing out is very simple.

But an unusual assortment of players have questioned the E.P.A. proposal, including furniture makers, the Chinese government, Republicans from states with a large base of furniture manufacturing and even some Democrats who championed early regulatory efforts.

Just moving five words from the end makes a huge difference. The rule of thumb is to complete the thought first, then modify it, especially if the modification is lengthy.

Do try these at home, and see how easy it is to make these sentences more readable:

Something in his bearing — his unusual haste, perhaps, or the way he walked with his head down, leaning forward, as if into a gale — caught my attention.

Fiona Shaw, the Irish actress and director — and Deborah Warner’s frequent collaborator (most notably, in a 1995 staging of “Richard II,” in which she played Richard, and in Tony Kushner’s translation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” in 2009) — will take over the production.

Three other patients at Children’s Hospital, including a 13-year-old boy who his parents said endured over 20 surgical procedures in 54 days in a futile effort to save him, were also stricken by the flesh-eating virus.

Bet all you have to do is move the verb closer to the noun.

Because this is a column on language, let’s also discuss the word “ilk.” It’s a wee bit of Scottish, dictionaries say, originally meaning “the same.” It initially applied to names and places, not categories or characteristics, but through “a misunderstanding of the Scottish use” in the 19th century, it came to mean “type” or “sort,” according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. “Because there is little call outside Scotland for the original sense, the extended use must now be accepted as standard.”

Garner’s notes, though, that “the word increasingly conveys derogatory connotations (perhaps from sound association with the expletive ick?).”

No such connotation is meant here toward writers; only toward the practices mentioned here and their ilk.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.