Tag Archives: Clarity

We’d been sat in a booth and eaten

I’m not sure what it’s called, but there’s a sentence structure which seems to cause confusion all round, and if our goal as writers is clarity, needs some thinking about. This is a sentence where the beginning part is reused later on, often after a conjunction. A very simple example would be “I like green eggs and ham.” In this example, readers can immediately tell which part of the sentence is impliedly repeated: effectively, the writer is saying “I like green eggs and [I like] ham.”

It gets a bit more complicated when you extend the sentences. In a recent Friday Fiction story, I wrote:

“The males and females almost indistinguishable: gender no more guarantee of temperament than appearance.”

Now this is arguably a poorly constructed sentence in that the verbs (were / was) are missing; which I excuse as an example of voice, but let’s put those verbs in to save confusion:

“The males and females were almost indistinguishable: gender was no more guarantee of temperament than appearance.”

The second part is where the problem lay, because the implied repetition is pretty long: “gender was no more guarantee of temperament than [gender was guarantee of] appearance.” It works, though. The implied repetition is exact and there’s nothing else it could mean. Sure, it might be an unusual formulation for some readers and we might therefore avoid it if we prioritise clarity above everything, but we don’t have to and it’s not wrong.

Which brings me to the title of this piece, and occasions where it is wrong or, at least, dangerous. The implied repetition intended by the writer is probably “We’d been sat in a booth and [we’d] eaten.” But my brain reads it differently. “We’d been sat in a booth and [we’d been] eaten.” Crikey, I’m thinking, I never saw that coming!

The difficulty here is twofold. First, there’s an alternative way of reading the sentence (which is confusing) and second, there’s a switch from the passive voice to the active one.

We should definitely use these implied repetitions in our writing. It’s hard not to – just look at how many times I’ve done it in this post. But be careful of them – try not to mix active / passive voice, tenses or singular to plural. Make sure the implied repetition is exact (I don’t like it when the implied repetition is a different part of the same verb, eg was to were) and when proof-reading, look for alternative readings that you didn’t intend!

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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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