Daily Archives: April 8, 2013

Why Prose is like a Diamond

I should start by admitting that I am behind on this analogy, bekindrewrite has written an excellent post on it here: http://bekindrewrite.com/2012/08/03/the-diamond-buyers-guide-to-writing-a-literary-gem/

As she rightly says, one of the things both diamonds and prose needs is Clarity. It’s one of my bugbears when editing, that so many sentences have the potential to mean more than one thing. If it’s not clear, if there’s even potential for a reader to get the wrong one, it is incumbent on the author to rephrase.

I’m not talking about lack of clarity in the plot or story as a whole: there are plenty of reasons one might want to keep things vague pending a twist, or the revelation of a mystery. I’m talking about clarity at the level of sentence structure.

Take this example:

I went looking for the dog we lost yesterday

There are two possibilities for what this means. Either, 1) I went looking (at an unspecified time) for the dog which yesterday became lost, OR 2) I went looking yesterday, for the dog we lost at some unspecified time.

It is often possible to resolve ambiguity with the careful placement of punctuation (usually, commas). “I went looking for the dog we lost, yesterday”, for example. But that’s a bit cumbersome, and a lot of people either don’t like or don’t understand commas (There’s a reason the English legal system did away with them for so long!). The better option is usually to rework the sentence, “Yesterday I went looking for the dog we lost” is also clearly meaning 2, “I went looking for the dog, which we lost yesterday” is clearly meaning 1, because it puts yesterday in a sub-clause with the losing of the dog, and outside the sub-clause containing the looking.

As a writer, it’s very easy to get caught in this particular trap, because of course we know what we meannt. There’s no shortcut for closely reading the text and considering whether there is any ambiguity in each phrase.

If you want to procrastinate from it for a while, try naming the capital cities of all the countries beginning with “R” …

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Did you start with Moscow or Rome?

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Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing