3 Sentence Stumbles

By Mark Nichol

Each of the sentences below represents a distinct type of careless writing that obfuscates meaning. The statements are followed by discussions and revisions.

1. The strategy includes triggers for alternative contingency plans management has decided to implement if certain predetermined events occur or conditions arise.

The reader might misread “alternative contingency plans management” as an admittedly awkwardly extended noun phrase; although the conjunction that is often optional, inserting it before management clarifies that the noun phrase is “alternative contingency plans” and that the sentence is referring to such plans in the context of how management is dealing with them: “The strategy includes triggers for alternative contingency plans that management has decided to implement if certain predetermined events occur or conditions arise.”

2. Too often, organizations set goals that are unrealistic and do not appreciate market complexities.

This sentence states that organizations set goals with two qualities: The goals are unrealistic and the goals do not appreciate market complexities. However, the intended meaning is that organizations do two things: Organizations set unrealistic goals and organizations do not appreciate market complexities. To clarify this meaning, the sentence should consist of two independent clauses so that the second point is attributed to organizations, not to goals: “Too often, organizations set goals that are unrealistic, and they do not appreciate market complexities.”

3. Please join us for a panel discussion on “The Pros and Cons of Retirement Annuities.”

This sentence sets up the expectation that it will end with a description of the panel discussion topic, but what concludes the sentence is the name of the panel discussion itself. The panel discussion’s topic and the name of the panel discussion may consist of the same sequence of words, but they have distinct functions and appearances: One is a generic phrase, and the other is a proper name enclosed in quotation marks.

If the phrase has the former purpose, the sentence should read, “Please join us for a panel discussion on the pros and cons of retirement annuities.” If it has the latter role, style the sentence “Please join us for a panel discussion, ‘The Pros and Cons of Retirement Annuities’” or “Please join us for a panel discussion called ‘The Pros and Cons of Retirement Annuities.’”

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3 Responses to “3 Sentence Stumbles”

  • Agua Caliente

    #1: These kinds of noun strings are with us to stay; one can hope only to make them comprehensible and less sleep-inducing. After a bunch of them, reading becomes soporific.

    Inserting “that” is helpful, but perhaps also a “the” preceding “alternative” might at least serve as a minor alert:
    The strategy includes triggers for the alternative contingency plans that management has decided to implement if certain predetermined events occur or conditions arise.

    Kind of sets off “alternative contingency plans” a bit more. This really all sounds too familiar. It’s not made any better when someone’s reading the text you’re seeing on-screen.

  • Mister Furkles

    The problem with sentence 1 isn’t the need for a word or two for clarification but one of redundancy. Every contingency plan is an alternative. You would not have contingency plans because you are fickle. You have them in case unlikely but possible conditions occur. If a particular event occurs could it happen without some condition arising? And wouldn’t that also be a trigger?

    And would your have contingency plans which you would never implement. Or would management’s strategy include contingency plans they disapproves of?

    Some people, attempting to sound sophisticated, overload their prose with fifteen-cent words.

    “This strategy includes contingency plans.”

  • Mister Furkles

    would your have -> would you have
    disapproves -> disapprove

    Got to stop editing in the little box!

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