A Quiz About Clarity

By Mark Nichol

Writers usually don’t mean to be duplicitous when they write one thing when they mean another; it’s just that what they intended to communicate is not what they communicated. The following sentences demonstrate some of the types of misunderstandings that result from careless composition. Try your hand at repairing the damage, and then take a look at my solutions at the bottom of the page:

1. “The postwar suburban ideal was a Cadillac and a fur coat like a movie star.”

2. “His legacy was also one of social revolutionary, humanitarian, and artist.”

3. “A letter can be mailed via the Pony Express reenactors for the 1860 price of $5.”

4. “That established history is being challenged by a rare book collector and author, John Doe and Jane Smith.”

5. “Although DNA testing is highly effective, those involved in criminal investigations do not always use it because of its high cost.”

Answers

1. The sentence implies that the ideal was ownership of two things: a Cadillac, and a fur coat that resembles a movie star. We know it means possessing a Cadillac and a fur coat, as movie stars were wont to do, but the sentence fails because it doesn’t explicitly state that. This revision does: “The postwar suburban ideal was driving a Cadillac and wearing a fur coat, like a movie star.”

2. The subject’s legacy cannot be that of someone with these identities, but it can be associated with that of such a person: “His legacy was that of a social revolutionary, humanitarian, and artist.”

3. The final phrase of this sentence lacks clarity. The point is that in 1860, sending a letter by Pony Express cost $5, and that today, for the same amount — a more modest total than it was about 150 years ago — one can send a letter on a commemorative ride carried out by reenactors. The sentence should be revised to make this relationship clearer: “A letter can be mailed via the Pony Express reenactors for the same fee it cost in 1860: $5.”

4. As written, this sentence suggests that the challenger is a book collector and author who is rare, and that the person’s name is John Doe and Jane Smith. Hyphenating rare and book to demonstrate that they team up to modify collector, and recasting the sentence to join each single epithet to the respective name, makes all clear: “That established history is being challenged by a rare-book collector, John Doe, and author Jane Smith.”

5. DNA testing is not always used of its high cost? Then why is it always used? Back up a little bit — the sentence means that DNA testing’s high cost restricts the frequency of its use. This important distinction is conveyed with the simple reversal of two phrases and the insertion of a comma between them: “Although DNA testing is highly effective, because of its high cost, those involved in criminal investigations do not always use it.”

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7 Responses to “A Quiz About Clarity”

  • Toby

    Should the indefinite article “a” be removed before “rare-book collector” to be consistent with “author Jane Smith”?

    In doing so, the parenthetical commas before and after “John Doe” should also be removed:

    “That established history is being challenged by rare-book collector John Doe and author Jane Smith.”

    If, however, the articles must be kept, I’d write the following:

    “That established history is being challenged by a rare-book collector, John Doe, and an author, Jane Smith.”

    OR:

    “That established history is being challenged by the rare-book collector John Doe and the author Jane Smith.”

  • Stephen French

    I would humbly submit that in the correction of #5, the placement of the phrase “because of its high cost,” combined with the use of the second comma to set the phrase apart, muddies the waters even further. This punctuation leaves it unclear whether it is the testing’s effectiveness or infrequent use that is tied to its high cost.

    I’d suggest either removing the second comma or altering the original as follows:

    “Although DNA testing is highly effective, those involved in criminal investigations do not always use it, due to its high cost.”

    Great site! Thanks!

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    The way you have rewritten number 5 makes it sound as though DNA testing’s effectiveness is simply due to its high costs.

    I would have rewritten it completely as follows: DNA testing is effective, but because of its high cost, those conducting criminal investigations do not always use it.

  • Sally

    Surely a much simpler version of Sentence 2 is

    “He was a social revolutionary, humanitarian an artist.”

  • Cinzia

    I don’t understand what is wrong with sentence # 5, I much prefer the first version than the corrected one, agree with Stephen French’s considerations. But thank you for the nice article!

  • Rian

    “That established history is being challenged by a rare-book collector, John Doe, and author Jane Smith.”

    I agreed with Toby’s comment. However John Doe and Jane Smith are two people, so the plural should be visible when writing collector, no? – “collectors” also is the comma after John Doe necessary?

    By taking away the a and a comma, and by adding the s, I would write:

    “That established history is being challenged by rare-book collectors, John Doe and author Jane Smith.”

  • Rian

    My bad.. No s. One is a collector and one is an author so yes. So I would rewrite like Toby mentioned:

    “That established history is being challenged by a rare-book collector, John Doe, and an author Jane Smith.”

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