3 Cases of Sentence-Composition Confusion

By Mark Nichol

It’s not only quite possible but also quite common for what initially appears to be a well-written sentence to turn out to fail to express what the writer intended. Readers may be able to understand that intent, and may not even notice the error, but confusion is likely. Here are three sentences that don’t quite say what the writer thinks they say, followed by discussions and revisions.

1. Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer named John Smith.

This sentence literally states that Jones’s name is actually John Smith; “another future Hall of Famer named John Smith” implies that the previously mentioned person shares that name. To eliminate this distraction, simply replace name with a comma: “Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer, John Smith. (Alternatively, change another to fellow and delete named: “Jones teamed up with fellow future Hall of Famer John Smith.”)

2. Gillian Anderson was offered half of David Duchovny’s salary for the return of The X-Files.

Here, the take-away is that half of David Duchovny’s salary was taken away and offered to Gillian Anderson—obviously not the intended meaning, which is that Duchovny was paid twice as much as Anderson to return to the television series. The fact that Duchovny’s salary is mentioned only for comparative purposes should be emphasized: “Gillian Anderson was offered half of what David Duchovny was paid to return to The X-Files.” (Alternatively, write “Gillian Anderson was offered half as much as David Duchovny was paid to return to The X-Files.”)

Note, too, the rewording in each case of the end of the sentence, which originally was written as if to suggest that she gave the series back in exchange for taking half of Duchovny’s salary, rather than that in exchange for reprising her role in a new edition of the series, she is earning half of what her male co-star is being paid.

3. I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development, but finding the first house he built was about as easy as locating men who worked on his construction crews.

To compare one difficult task (finding the first house a housing developer built) with another (tracking down his contractors) by writing that one was as easy as the other could confuse readers. (As it is, only the counterpoint conjunction but provides a clue that the second and third objectives were a challenge to achieve.). For clarity, replace “as easy as” with “as difficult as”: “I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development, but finding the first house he built was about as difficult as locating men who worked on his construction crews.”

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5 Responses to “3 Cases of Sentence-Composition Confusion”

  • John

    “Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer named John Smith”
    The comma is okay, but I can’t see how the sentence above can possibly be misunderstood.

  • ApK

    @John, That particular example would likely fly under most people’s radars, but that doesn’t make it correct.
    Not every example has us eating grandma or shooting and leaving.
    A stronger example might be if instead of “Jones,” the sentence happened to start with someone named “John Jones” or “Phil Smith.” Then the incorrect composition might easily lead to confusion, with people wondering if one of the names was written incorrectly.

  • Lisa

    The second sentence out of context (I didn’t know who either was) sounds like extortion.

    The third could be kept the way it is if you add “I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development,” [sarcastically adding,] “but finding the first house he built was about as easy as locating men who worked on his construction crews.”

  • Precise Edit

    Re. #1: I wondered how many future HOF-ers are named John Smith. Must be at least two, right?

  • Caitlin

    Re 3: About as easy/difficult as.

    I would interpret the improvement, ‘about as difficult as’, as meaning it was actially quite easy, and for the same reason, ‘about as easy as’ indicates it was difficult.

    The comparison ‘about as____as’ is mildly sarcastic. It doesn’t contradict its true intent; it intensifies it by making a comparision between the task at hand and something else of a similar (or exaggerated) difficulty level: o’Just quit smoking? That’s about as easy as climbing Mount Everest’.

    Of course, in the example given the comparison is between two things known to the reader omly through the author so the whole sentence really needed to be entirely reworded.

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