5 Types of Awkward Wording to Avoid

By Mark Nichol

The following five sentences demonstrate various ways a carelessly worded or constructed sentence can fail to communicate the intended idea. A discussion and a revision follows each example.

1. There is a danger of overreaction and a rush to implement poorly thought through laws and regulations.

Because the phrase “thought through” modifies “laws and regulations,” it should be hyphenated, but that phrasal adjective is awkward, partly because it’s difficult to say and especially because of the similarity of appearance of the constituent words. In such cases, seek one or more words that convey the same idea: “There is a danger of overreaction and a rush to implement poorly conceived laws and regulations.”

2. The consultant submitted a compliance risk mitigation plan.

A string of nouns used as adjectives to modify another noun is grammatically correct (when properly hyphenated, which this example is not) but cumbersome. When more than two or three adjectives appear together like this, unpack the sentence and start over again, beginning with the target noun and using prepositions between the adjectives to relax the statement: “The consultant submitted a plan to mitigate compliance risk.”

3. That person is the chief ombudsman, which we use here to refer to the department’s director.

The dependent clause implies that what is “used” here is the person, rather than the phrase used to designate that person. The sentence must be revised to clarify that here, “chief ombudsman” is a description of a person, not the person himself or herself: “That person is the chief ombudsman, the designation we use here to refer to the department’s director.”

4. We understand that all organizations are unique and can help you with your specific challenges.

As constructed, this sentence erroneously suggests that all organizations are unique and that all organizations can help you with your specific challenges. The intended meaning, however, is that the company represented by the writer understands that all organizations are unique; in addition, the company can help the targeted reader with specific challenges. To clarify this distinction, the sentence must be divided into two independent clauses, each of which addresses one of the two distinct points: “We understand that all organizations are unique, and we can help you with your specific challenges.”

5. While reacting to unexpected surprises and being able to put out fires are essential at times, these capabilities are not sufficient for managing a company in a volatile market.

In conversational writing, though and while are interchangeable as conjunctions, but it is best to reserve each word to mean “despite the fact that,” and “during the time that” respectively; otherwise, readers might misread the beginning of a sentence or phrase starting with while, thinking that the statement pertains to simultaneous events (“While [someone was] reacting to [something, something else occurred]”): “Though reacting to unexpected surprises and being able to put out fires are essential at times, these capabilities are not sufficient for managing a company in a volatile market.”

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4 Responses to “5 Types of Awkward Wording to Avoid”

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the first example, I would go for “poorly-thought-through”. Mr. Nichol only suggested one hyphen. I also agree with him that the sentence was poorly cast and that rephrasing it was the thing to do. Also, in the new version, I would still hyphenate “poorly-conceived”.
    Also, I do not like the verb “to implement” very much. I believe that “implement” should be reserved as a noun – to avoid confusion – and not to be pushed into being a verb. “I think “to implement” is modern day “bureaucratese” and that a better substitute for “to implement” is “to carry out”. Other nice replacements include “to put in place”, “to enforce”, “to set up”, and “to institute”.
    To me the word “implement” immediately brings to mind objects like these: {fork, spoon, knife, hammer, wrench, hand-held calculator, keychain, pair of pliars, pair of scissors, soldering iron**, potato peeler}.
    I also think of the kinds of wooden and stone implements that cavemen and cavewomen used.

    **It is interesting that the spell-checker also accepts “soldiering iron”. Maybe that means something else. Also, my mother and father, both educators, always wrote “pliars”, but the spell-checker does not like this one. It suggests “plyers”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Thebluebird11” would probably find this one to be interesting:
    Speaking of spell-checkers, I read in the TV listings yesterday about a program that included an “anesthesiologist” who hung around or worked at a beauty salon. That does not make much sense. I think that a person had tried to write “esthetician” **, and then had misspelled it something like “asthestician” or “esthesiologist”, and then a spellchecker had suggested “anesthesiologist”. The writer swallowed this on whole without realizing that this is an absurdity. Also, as far as I know, “asthestician” and “esthesiologist” are both nonexistent words.
    **”Esthetician” is a real word for one kind of person who does work in a beauty salon, and “esthetician” is also used for a person who assists certain kinds of doctors, especially dermatologists and plastic surgeons. Some patients have skin and hair problems that do not or have not responded well to medical treatment or surgery, and so another approach is needed. An esthetician (sometimes spelled “aesthetician” in the former countries of the British Empire) is person with special training and expertise in the use of cosmetics, skin and hair colorings, massage techniques, and so forth to help people who have problems with scarring, rashes, burned places, and other problems with the skin and is underlying tissues. This person is certainly not an “anesthesiologist”, who is a physician with special training in controlling pain, especially during surgery and childbirth.
    My present spellchecker recognizes both “esthetician” and “aesthetician”, but it does not like misspelled words like “asthetician”. Also, I usually prefer “spell-checker”, but some such devices are now programmed to recognize “spellchecker” as a word in English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I can see just one preposition in the edited sentence in No. 2, “The consultant submitted a plan to mitigate compliance risk.” That is the word “to”, but in this case it is not being used to start off a prepositional phrase. On the contrary, “to” is being used to form an infinitive phrase, with the infinitive “to mitigate”. I would rather see this sentence be rephrased with one or two prepositional phrases, and especially since so many writers today seem not to know how to use those — no matter how useful they are. (The use of subordinate clauses seems to be even more obscure to many writers.)
    Here is my shot at doing it with two real prepositional phrases:
    “The consultant submitted a plan for the mitigation of the compliance risk.”
    Here is an option with one prepositional phrase:
    “The consultant submitted a mitigation plan for compliance risk.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Years ago, there was a movie called COLOSSUS, THE FORBIN PROJECT, that was shown first in European theaters, but in North America, it was released directly as a TV movie. Since this movie was about a truly gigantic computerized defense system, I had the idea that this should be an acronym, and that I would work backwards from this acronym to figure out a possible source for it. I used one or two prepositional phrases to work it out. Here is one try: Computer Operated, Logically Organized, Security System of the United States, where the phrase “of America” has been omitted.
    Here is another try: COmputerized, Logically Operated, Security System of the United States. There are other possibilities.
    The point that I am making is that so many writers nowadays know little about the use of prepositional phrase, and of appositives, and of the use of an adjectival phrase to begin a sentence.

    By the way, COLOSSUS turned into insane monster that used its control of nuclear weapons to dominate mankind. It did not just bluff, but it fired a nuclear ICBM from the USA to the USSR, provoking the Soviets to fire back with one of its own, and later on, it detonated a whole field of nuclear weapons somewhere in the United States.

    It can be seen that COLOSSUS was a direct predecessor of SKYNET, the evil computerized defense system in the series of TERMINATOR movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton.

    Of course, all of this traces back to the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelly. Frankenstein’s monster turned against its human creator.

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