One Word Can Mar Your Meaning

By Mark Nichol

Each of the three sentences shown below contains a minor error that nevertheless muddles the intended meaning. The discussion following each example identifies the problem and sets up a resolving revision.

1. “Instead of focusing on rebuilding the Republican Party, she said that party leaders should focus on rebuilding the middle class.”
This sentence implies that the person referred to opted to make the recommendation to party leaders in lieu of focusing on rebuilding the party; the action of focusing is erroneously assigned to her. What the writer meant to write is that the subject recommended that party leaders rebuild the middle class rather than the party. Omission of that after the attribution “she said” clarifies this meaning: “Instead of focusing on rebuilding the Republican Party, she said, party leaders should focus on rebuilding the middle class.”

2. “The project would cost $250 million to $300 million to build and receive a $400 million endowment upon opening.”
According to this sentence, the project’s $250–$300 million budget would be used to build and receive an endowment. But two distinct facts are mentioned about the project: It would require $250–$300 million to build, and it would receive an additional $400 million as an endowment after completion of the building. To clearly state this meaning, the sentence’s parallel structure must be bolstered with a second use of would, between the conjunction and and the verb in the second clause: “The project would cost $250 million to $300 million to build and would receive a $400 million endowment upon opening.”

3. “If you’re interested in learning more about her work, the scholar who has delved most deeply into it is John Smith.”
OK, this revision involves swapping in two words for one, but the mistake is as small and as easy to overlook as those in the examples above. This statement illustrates a subtle error known as a false conditional: The sentence is structured so that the identity of the most deeply delving scholar is contingent on your interest in learning more about someone else’s work; if you’re not interested, apparently, John Smith loses that distinction. By changing the way the sentence refers to your potential interest, this logical fallacy is erased: “In case you’re interested in learning more about her work, the scholar who has delved most deeply into it is John Smith.”

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4 Responses to “One Word Can Mar Your Meaning”

  • AnWulf

    I must disagree here. The original sentences were as clear or clear to me than than the revised sentences.

    1. Taking out the ‘that’ makes me looks for quotes ” ..,” she said, “…” So I don’t think you added anything here by taking the ‘that’ out.

    2. Clumsy sentence to begin with. The second ‘would’ does help somewhat. However, what would help me more is taking out the first ‘million’.

    3. You think that swapping in “in case” for “if” makes a difference? “In case” is synonymous with “if”. You’v chang’d nothing grammatically.

  • Azahara

    @ AnWulf

    I don’t think ‘in case’ and ‘if’ are synonymous. The classic example that teachers use to illustrate the difference is the following:

    -“Take an umbrella in case it rains.”
    >It looks like it’s going to rain, so taking an umbrella is a good idea. You might not need it, but take it just in case.

    -“Take an umbrella if it rains.”
    >Take the umbrella only if you see it’s raining before you leave the house.

    Hope it helps.

  • Patrick Boyle

    I agree that the use of “in case” in place of “if” (in the third example above) doesn’t help. I see how the change works in the sentences provided by Azahara, but it doesn’t work in the sentence that started this discussion.

    Here is my test: If I used this as a guide to correct my teenage kids on the use of a false conditional (common around our house), they would say “What’s the difference?” and I’d be hard-pressed to explain in way that makes sense to regular people.

    The use of “in case” still sets up a condition: In case X, then Y. But we are trying to say that Y is true even if X is not.

  • Starlyt

    In the 3rd example, I think it depends on the connotation, lets say the teacher, wants to give.

    ‘If your interested’ sounds like a continuation of a theme. Where as, ‘In case your interested’ sounds like a bonus to the theme.

    It is a subtle difference in tone or rythme of speaking.

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