Missing Words Change Everything

By Mark Nichol

Empires, fortunes, and people rise and fall and fall on the insertion or omission of a word or two. OK, so the stakes are usually not so high, but misunderstandings and embarrassment are bad enough. Here are sentences that suffer (in increasing order of significance) because they are each missing one or more words.

1. “The game was created by Jane Roe and John Doe, an actress and former ad man.”
When one person, place, or thing is described with two or more words or phrases, the template is “a/an (blank) and (blank).” When two or more nouns are described in tandem, however, the respective descriptions must be separated not only by a conjunction but also by an additional indefinite article: “The game was created by Jane Roe and John Doe, an actress and a former ad man.” (Otherwise, the sentence reads as if only John Doe is being described — as an actress and former ad man.)

2. “Polling shows that social issues such as abortion represent perhaps Obama’s best opportunity to draw support from Romney.”
This sentence, as written, implies that depending on Barack Obama’s position on abortion, he could obtain the support of his Republican challenger for the US presidency — a significant writing (and/or editing) faux pas triggered by the absence of a word that might at first glance seem redundant to from. However, the phrase “away from,” rather than from alone, correctly indicates that the support would be derived not from Romney but from ambivalent or undecided voters encouraged not to vote for him: “Polling shows that social issues such as abortion represent perhaps Obama’s best opportunity to draw support away from Romney.”

3. “Prosecutors in the trial of a hockey mom accused of sex with her son’s teenage teammates gave the boys alcohol.”
Although these errors — two, not just one, in this example — are not as significant in terms of import as the one in the previous example, they are more detrimental to the parties involved. For one thing, the hockey mom, not the prosecutors, allegedly provided alcohol to the youths. Second, the article later details that the woman had sex with two boys on her son’s team, not with “her son’s teenage teammates” — an error of scope that implies that she serviced the entire team. The sentence, based on a reading of the entire article, should read “Prosecutors in the trial of a hockey mom accused of sex with two of her son’s teenage teammates say she gave the boys alcohol.”

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3 Responses to “Missing Words Change Everything”

  • Steve

    Would the first example be more understandable if written:

    The game was created by Jane Roe, an actress, and John Doe, a former ad man.

  • Jack Dowden

    A few years ago, my band and I were playing at a local fundraiser. We wanted to print shirts that said, “MISRULE is the best band ever!”

    So we put our drummer in charge of it. He forgot the word “best.” So everything said, “MISRULE is the band ever!” Any other word and things would’ve been fine.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I would say that example #3 is still ambiguous, if one follows that strict rules of interpretation that are the norm on this website.

    The corrected version states that the subject of this article is “the trial of a hockey mom accused of sex with two of her son’s teenage teammates”. In addition to the obvious meaning that the woman is being accused of having sex with two teenaged boys, there is the possibility that she and the two boys are all being accused of a sex offense of some kind. In other words, the woman is being accused together with the two boys.

    Any shade of ambiguity could be wiped out by adding “having” to the sentence, so it would read “the trial of a hockey mom accused of having sex with two of her son’s teenage teammates”.

    As it stands in your blog, however, I would have to give your resonse a “fail”.

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