3 Sentences That Cause Confusion

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, a word or phrase is an obstacle to comprehension. The discussion and revision that follows each example suggests a path to clarity.

1. Technology companies have a very different mind-set to traditional financial institutions.

Comparisons structured as one is in this sentence should employ from rather than to, and note the insertion of the phrase “that of the” to indicate that the comparison is between mind-sets and not the entities that have the mind-sets: “Technology companies have a very different mind-set from that of traditional financial institutions.”

2. The agency found that contrary to its claims, World Wide Wickets failed to employ reasonable and appropriate measures to protect data.

This sentence has an unclear antecedent: The pronoun its appears to refer to “the agency,” because no other entity has yet been identified, but it is a reference to the company subsequently mentioned. For clarity, use a specific proper noun (for example, “World Wide Wickets”) or a specific common noun (for example, “(the) company”) first, then a pronoun (or, in this case, use a proper noun on first reference and a common noun on second reference, bypassing the need for a pronoun at all): “The agency found that contrary to the claims of World Wide Wickets, the company failed to employ reasonable and appropriate measures to protect data.”

3. Jones faces criticism of others who oppose his policy positions, as does opponent John Smith and many others.

This sentence is ambiguous—it could mean that Smith and many others face the same criticism as Jones, or the phrase “as does” could apply not to the verb faces but to the verb oppose. (In this case, the latter option applies.) To eliminate possible confusion, chose a clearer word or phrase in place of the nebulous “as does”: “Jones faces criticism of others who oppose his policy positions, including opponent John Smith and many others.”

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1 Response to “3 Sentences That Cause Confusion”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Excellent, Mr. Nichol:
    “Comparisons structured as one is in this sentence should employ from rather than to, and note the insertion of the phrase “that of the” to indicate that the comparison is between mind-sets and not the entities that have the mind-sets: “Technology companies have a very different mind-set from that of traditional financial institutions.””

    My impression is that many speakers and writers nowadays just choose prepositions at random, and they do not put any thought or care into choosing the right one.

    By the way, I am very much in favor of the spelling “mindset” rather than the hyphenated form. This is also a case in which the spellchecker in my PC agrees!

    I am very much in favor of eliminating hyphens in compound words or in words with prefixes as much as possible. It is just that in some cases, they are needed for clarity. For example, “resign” and “re-sign” are two different words with two different meanings.
    There are also good arguments for both reentry and re-entry. The first one is used more in the context of rocketry and satellites.
    I also go for hemidemisemiquaver and antidisestablismentarianism without any hyphens!

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