Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A simple language trick

Listing items in a sentence should be simple but people often screw it up. I don't think many people notice the problem I'm concerned with here, but I'm going to help you see it and fix it in your own writing.

Let's use an example from a science article at physorg. It's about efforts to head off climate change. Here's one sentence from the article:
"Initially, those efforts will probably take the form of limits on greenhouse gas emissions or forest preservation."
Do you see the problem? The sentence refers to "limits on greenhouse gas emissions or forest preservation," implying that the word "limits" applies to both terms. But the efforts probably won't include limiting forest preservation. Mind you, it would have been worse if it said "gas emissions and forest preservation." Perhaps the poor soul who wrote this assumed s/he'd fixed the problem by using "or" instead of "and". Nope.

It's easy to avoid this problem: just re-order your list. The sentence would be clear if it was written as follows:
"Initially, those efforts will probably take the form of forest preservation or limits on greenhouse gas emissions."
See? Problem gone. Just say "forest preservation" as a lone positive, and then use the word "limits" only in reference to greenhouse gas emissions.

Check the order of things you list in sentences. Does that list really make sense? Take any modifier that occurs before the list begins and apply the modifier to each of the objects in the list, to see if the meaning is sound for every item. The solution is always as simple as above: just change the order of the list (which usually means taking the lone item that doesn't work with the modifier and putting it first -- before the modifier).

This message is brought to you by the editing fairy. May he always be well!