How to Correct an Awkward Interruptive Phrase

By Mark Nichol

When writers interrupt themselves to expand a thought, they must take care to ensure that they retain a parallel balance on the structure they’ve built. Here are three sentences thrown off balance, followed by solutions that will help the writers (and their readers) keep on their feet.

1. “High school students who carry a poor or no understanding of evolution into college are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.”
This sentence is technically correct, but the juxtaposition of the modifiers poor and no is awkward. This revision somewhat eases the effort to modify poor: “High school students who carry a poor, or no, understanding of evolution into college are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.” (Alternatively, parentheses or a pair of em dashes could replace the commas.)

However, this version, though longer, is more elegant: “High school students who carry a poor understanding of evolution into college, or none at all, are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.”

2. “She has proven herself willing and capable of making progress with challenging ideas and procedures.”
The problem with this sentence is that the two qualities are presented in nonparallel forms. If the second of the two qualities is omitted from the sentence, it clumsily reads, “She has proven herself willing of making progress with challenging ideas and procedures.”

The sample sentence here, like the preceding example, benefits from a more relaxed syntax, in this case one in which each adjective is associated with a distinct verb phrase appropriate for its form: “She has proven herself willing to make, and capable of making, progress with challenging ideas and procedures.” (And, again, parentheses or em dashes can be used in place of commas.)

Or, more simply, replace “capable of” with “able to” and change the verb phrase to “to make”: “She has proven herself willing and able to make progress with challenging ideas and procedures.”

3. “He has shown leadership in guiding, indeed sometimes demanding of them, to keep their focus on the task at hand.”
There is no easy fix for this sentence, but it can be fixed — it just requires more significant reorganization. Relocate the ill-fitting parenthetical that interrupts an otherwise coherent sentence, tagging it onto the end of the sentence, and reword it so that the verb form matches that of the verb phrase that immediately follows the subject: “He has shown leadership in guiding them to keep their focus on the task at hand — indeed, he sometimes even demands that they do so.”

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10 Responses to “How to Correct an Awkward Interruptive Phrase”

  • Jeff

    Is the first sentence really technically correct? I would have thought the lack of parallelism made it incorrect.

  • Jeff

    Nevermind, I jumped too quickly to the response section.

  • Curtis

    Mark,

    Seems like your first fix on #1 still needs fixed. You have, ” . . . students who carry a poor, or no, understanding . . . ”

    This, to me, implies “a poor, or A no, understanding .. . ” Seems to violate parallelism. I think the “a” should be dropped.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    1) “High-school students who reach college with little or no understanding of evolution are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences” is more elegant, IMHO.

    And they are students at high school, not “high” students at school …

  • Mark Nichol

    Oliver:

    Yes, your revision is more elegant, but when I came across this sentence on the job as an editor, I felt that the colloquialism was acceptable in the context. (It was an opinion column.)

    Also, “high school” is a standing open compound, ubiquitous in usage and found as such in the dictionary, and does not require hyphenation when used as a phrasal adjective.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Do use “High school students who carry a poor understanding of evolution into college are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.”

    This is because “poor understanding” automatically includes “no understanding at all”. This is something that is mathematically and logically self-evident.
    Likewise:
    1. Being poorly paid automatically includes not being paid at all.
    2. Being poorly fed automatically includes not being fed at all.
    (Such as a prisoner in a sadistic prison camp.)
    3. Being poorly educated automatically includes not being educated at all.
    4. Being ill-mannered automatically includes not having any manners at all.
    5. An army that is poorly trained automatically includes one that is not trained at all.

    Furthermore, aaving up to 15 percent includes saving zero percent, which is saving nothing at all, so all of the TV commercials that say “save up to 15 percent” are complete nonsense in their implications. They also include saving negative percentages, which means PAYING MORE.
    D.A.W.

  • Curtis

    Dale,

    You wrote:

    “1. Being poorly paid automatically includes not being paid at all.”

    You are wrong. Sorry, but “poorly paid” says that someone WAS paid, just not very well. If they hadn’t been paid anything, they’d be UNPAID.

    Likewise with all the other examples you gave.

    I think Oliver’s “little or no” says it best.

  • Kristi

    How about: I think that some of the awkwardness is from using the wrong preposition.

    ) High school students with little to no understanding about evolution are less likely to pick careers in biology or geology.

    2) She has proven herself willing and capable of making progress by challenging ideas and procedures .

    3) He has shown leadership by telling, indeed demanding, his team to focus on the task at hand.

  • Artie

    Curtis

    Spot on.

    I’m poorly educated – but I knows my letters and numbers. Not the same thing at all as being uneducated.

    Perhaps the percentage examples that Dale gives have a sort of mathematical purity to them, but to try and apply the same rules to language is like putting stockings on the piano legs.

    Methinks some folks are educated beyond their intelligence.

  • Curtis

    Artie,
    Dale’s examples are no better mathematically than they are linguistically.

    The original sentence posed two distinct conditions: poor or no.
    Dale contends that there is only one condition, encompassing all values between zero and some (insufficient) quantity. What he’s saying is that “insufficient is equal to absent.” The equivalent mathematical expression would be, “n=>0=0.”

    An insufficiency is definitely not the same as a total absence of something.

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