Nobody, we might suppose, would write a sentence as bad as,
Miss Jones finished her solo at ten o’clock and immediately afterward they found the house on fire.
Yet how much better is the following paragraph, written in a style with which most of us are all too familiar?
The June meeting of the Groveton Parent-Teacher Association was held Monday evening, and a large number of members was in attendance. Dr. James Jones was in the chair, and William Hennessey, of the Guidance Department of Groveton’s schools, was the speaker. The interest aroused by Mr. Hennessey’s address was very great, and it was decided to have a series of special talks on guidance as part of next year’s PTA program. The first meeting of the coming term will be held on the third Monday in September, and the new officers will take over their duties at that meeting.
And so on, drearily, until the end. Is it any wonder that everyone goes to sleep during the reading of the minutes?
Occasionally a writer decides that one idea in one sentence can present no dilemma. This person will write,
Lorenzo the Magnificent is known in history as a great patron of the arts. He was the grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici. Lorenzo was born in Florence in 1449.
Here we have the best style of the primary reading books, whose readers cannot handle more than one idea at a time. Try:
Lorenzo the Magnificent, grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, and a renowned patron of the arts, was born in Florence in 1449,
Lorenzo the Magnificent, born in Florence in 1449, grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, was a renowned patron of the arts,
Lorenzo the Magnificent, a renowned patron of the arts, born in Florence in 1449, was a grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici.
Which one? Only he who writes the sentence knows; he must make the choice so that the reader may know.
Robinson, Berton. 1963. 12 Steps to Effective Writing. Chapter 3.
Subordination, the grouping of ideas into principal and subordinate clauses in a sentence, is much like the pictorial artist’s emphasis upon one element in his painting at the expense of all others; or like the photographer’s selective focus, by means of which he keeps a certain part of his picture in focus and deliberately allows all other elements to assume an out-of-focus fuzziness.
The use of subordinate clauses and of phrases is a writer’s way of telling his reader what thoughts are secondary to the important idea of his sentence. Here the dreary hours spent in clausal analysis of sentences should come to our help. Indeed, those hours of drill should have come to our help long ago; unfortunately, too few people understand that exercises in clausal analysis are not an end in themselves. Instead, separation of correctly subordinated sentences into their parts is only a preparation for building properly subordinated sentences for ourselves.
A sentence, as we learned long ago, is a complete thought expressed in words. It consists of only one thought; the thought may comprise several related ideas, so placed that their relationship is obvious.
Subordination is both a logical and a grammatical device by means of which a writer makes clear the relation among the ideas in a sentence.
For an example, start with an especially bad sentence, consisting of two ideas connected by and.
Jonson was an Elizabethan dramatist, and he wrote The Alchemist.
This sentence is loose, disjointed, and unarticulated, like a sprawling puppet whose strings have been dropped. Of the two ideas in the sentence, one must be more important to the writer’s purpose than the other. Is he writing of Jonson, the Elizabethan dramatist, or of Jonson, author of The Alchemist? Only the writer himself knows. He must tell the reader; he cannot expect the reader to make the distinction for him.
He could subordinate one of his ideas by writing,
Jonson, who was an Elizabethan dramatist, wrote The Alchemist;
Jonson, who wrote The Alchemist, was an Elizabethan dramatist.
His choice depends upon what he wants to say.
Either of these two forms is greatly preferable to the original. Reduction of one principal clause to a subordinate clause has shown the relation between the two ideas, one of greater, one of lesser, importance. The first step in subordination, then, is to express important ideas in principal clauses and subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses.
A careful writer will not be satisfied with what we have done with the bad sentence. He will probably want to use one of these variations:
Jonson, an Elizabethan dramatist, wrote The Alchemist,
Jonson, author of The Alchemist, was an Elizabethan dramatist.
Now further reduction of one of the ideas to a phrase has thrust it completely into the background as an unimportant, though relevant, idea.
This reduction of subordination ideas to expression in subordinate clauses or in phrases is founded on the important consideration that a writer must not expect his reader to sort out ideas; the writer must do the processing himself. He must assemble his ideas, sort them, and express them in such a manner that the reader will immediately see the relation among the ideas in the sentence.
Robinson, Berton. 1963. 12 Steps to Effective Writing. Chapter 3.
The view from the hill behind our town — is it beautiful? If a writer uses that overworked, vague term, he must at once tell specific things that support his use of the general adjective. A writer must never use a general term unless he follows it at once with specifics to enforce agreement from the reader.
Conrad follows that rule carefully. He says each coolie was carrying with him “all he had in the world”. Then he goes on at once to be specific about the things each coolie had — the wooden chest, and its contents.
In the following passage, from Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather, notice Miss Cather’s swift transition from the general to the specific.
Saint-Vallier was a man of contradictions, and they were stamped upon his face. One saw there something slightly hysterical, and something uncertain, — though his manner was imperious, and his administration had been arrogant and despotic. Auclair had once remarked to the Count that the new Bishop looked less like a churchman than like a courtier. “Or an actor,” the Count replied with a shrug. Large almond-shaped eyes under low-growing brown hair and delicate eyebrows, a long, sharp nose — and then the lower part of his face diminished, like the neck of a pear. His mouth was large and well shaped, but seldom in repose; his chin narrow, receding, with a dimple at the end. He had a dark skin and flashing white teeth like an Italian, — indeed, his face recalled the portraits of eccentric Florentine nobles. He was still only forty-four; he had been Bishop of Quebec now twelve years, — and seven of them had been spent in France! (from Shadows on the Rock by Willla Cather, 1931)
The unerring selection and vivid presentation of specific detail in these passages from Conrad and Miss Cather are the goals toward which everyone who wants to write effectively must work.
Lack of specific, definite terms in writing is in general due to four causes — laziness, carelessness, ignorance, and failure to see the general, abstract terms in our own work. As this book is not directed toward the lazy or the careless writer, we will dismiss him at once from this discussion. Failure to see the general and the abstract terms in our own writing can be corrected only by word-by-word reading for revision and by incessant asking, “Does this word convey a clear, sharp meaning?” If not, either seek out a new word, or follow the term with specifics to enforce the meaning. Ignorance is best overcome by careful, observant reading of the work of good writers.
No more remains to be said. Let him who would write effective English read the work of good writers, and in his own work sternly and uncompromisingly replace with definite, concrete specifics, the glittering generalities that sound as though they mean something, but are actually as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
Summary of Step 1
learn to think, speak, and write in specific, concrete terms
The following selection from Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon is full of sharp, clearly defined terms. After explaining that the ship Nan-shan, on her way to Fu-chau, had two hundred Chinese coolies on board, Conrad goes on with:
The foredeck, packed with Chinamen, was full of somber clothing, yellow faces, and pigtails, sprinkled over with a good many naked shoulders, for there was no wind, and the heat was close. The coolies lounged, talked, smoked, or stared over the rail; some, drawing water over the side, sluiced each other; a few slept on hatches, while several small parties of six sat on their heels surrounding iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups; and every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world — a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labors; some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium, maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal mines, won in gambling houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of the earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungles, under heavy burdens — amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely. (From Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, 1902)
Conrad does not give us all the details; that task would be impossible. He does, however, give us in specific, definite, concrete terms all the significant details. His vivid words place us on the bridge of the Nan-shan, overlooking the foredeck. From that point, we can see for ourselves what was on the deck during the eventful voyage.
Long ago, somebody said that elaboration of the obvious is pointless. Nevertheless, in looking at some of the specifics in Conrad’s paragraph, this writer intends to risk such elaboration. The coolies did not merely occupy the foredeck; they lounged, smoked, or did other specific things. They did not gather in groups; they gathered in small parties of six. They did not merely sit; they sat on their heels. They did not sit around trays of food; they sat around iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups. And so on, and so on.
This sort of writing is basic to the effective use of language, because effectiveness of language is proportional in large degree to the number of specifics used. Of course, this kind of writing has its roots in thinking in specifics, and most of us do not want to think in specific, definite terms. We dislike intensely being pinned down to a concrete statement. We believe that when we have said a man is tall we have said all there is to say about his height. But how tall is he? Must he duck his head to pass through the ordinary doorway? Is he a foot taller than any other man in the room?
Writing in specific, concrete, definite terms is the most important single principle the student of effective writing can learn.
General, abstract, and vague terms are deadly foes of effective writing. They rob writing of all its vitality; they give the reader the unpleasant sensation of having entered a schizoid world in which nothing is exactly what he thinks it is.
Compare the vague: Because of inclement weather, our trip to Montreal was delayed.
with the definite: Because it rained, we postponed for a week our trip to Montreal.
Or look at these two sentences: The path was bordered with flowers.
and Salvias thrust up crimson spikes from the edge of the circular walk.
Or again: The boy’s jacket was torn in many places.
and Pete’s jacket hung in rags.
Good, effective writing always consists of specifics, terms that convey sharp, clearly defined meanings to the reader, who has every right to expect a writer to say what he means in words as exact as possible. Only specifics can tell the reader precisely what the writer means.
Age should be reported as part of the description of participants in the Method section. Be specific in providing age ranges; avoid open-ended definitions such as “under 18 years” or “over 65 years.” Girl and boy are correct terms for referring to individuals under the age of 12 years. Young man and young woman and female adolescent and male adolescent may be used for individuals aged 13 to 17 years. For persons 18 years and older, use women and men. The terms elderly and senior are not acceptable as nouns; some may consider their use as adjectives pejorative. Generational descriptors such as boomer or baby boomer should not be used unless they are related to a study on this topic. The term older adults is preferred. Age groups may also be described with adjectives. Gerontologists may prefer to use combination terms for older age groups (youngold, old-old, very old, oldest old, and centenarians); provide the specific ages of these groups and use them only as adjectives. Use dementia instead of senility; specify the type of dementia when known (e.g., dementia of the Alzheimer’s type).
Write about the people in your study in a way that acknowledges their participation but is also consistent with the traditions of the field in which you are working. Thus, although descriptive terms such as college students, children, or respondents provide precise information about the individuals taking part in a research project, the more general terms participants and subjects are also in common usage.
Indeed, for more than 100 years the term subjects has been used within experimental psychology as a general or starting point for describing a sample, and its use is appropriate. Subjects and sample are customary when discussing certain established statistical terms (e.g., within-subject and between-subjects design).
Further, the passive voice suggests individuals are acted on instead of being actors (“the students completed the survey” is preferable to “the students were given the survey” or “the survey was administered to the students”). “The subjects completed the trial” or “we collected data from the participants” is preferable to “the participants were run.”
from Reducing Bias in Language (3.11)
Guideline 3: Acknowledge Participation APA website
This sounds as if the writer meant, “It will not be worth my while to write to you again.” Simply write, “Thanking you,” and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.
Strunk, William, Jr. (1999). The Elements of Style, New York
Section V. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused Bartleby.com
A student at Eagle Rock Junior High won first prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair, April 26. He was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists practicing junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical “dihydrogen monoxide.”
And for plenty of good reasons, since:
it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting
it is a major component in acid rain
it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
accidental inhalation can kill you
it contributes to erosion
it decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes
it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients
He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of the chemical.
Bias may be promoted when the writer uses one group (often the writer’s own group) as the standard against which others are judged, for example, citizens of the United States. In some contexts, the term culturally deprived may imply that one culture is the universally accepted standard.
The unparallel nouns in the phrase man and wife may inappropriately prompt the reader to evaluate the roles of the individuals (i.e., the woman is defined only in terms of her relationship to the man) and the motives of the author. By contrast, the phrases husband and wife and man and woman are parallel.
Usage of normal may prompt the reader to make the comparison with abnormal, thus stigmatizing individuals with differences. For example, contrasting lesbians with “the general public” or with “normal women” portrays lesbians as marginal to society. More appropriate comparison groups might be heterosexual women, heterosexual women and men, or gay men.
from Reducing Bias in Language (3.11)
Guideline 2: Be Sensitive to Labels APA website