3 Cases of Poorly Constructed Short Lists

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, the writer is under the misapprehension that the statement includes a list of three words and/or phrases; in fact, each sentence includes a compound list item and a simple list item (or at least is better rendered so that it does), for a total of two items. Discussion of each example explains the problem, and a revision after each sentence resolves the problem.

1. These projects provide the needed insight as to where these measures work, don’t work, and why.

One solution for this sentence is to express the elements completely: “These projects provide the needed insight as to where these measures work, where they don’t work, and why they don’t work.” However, a simpler, more concise solution is to combine work and “don’t work” into one element: “These projects provide the needed insight as to where these measures work or don’t work and why.”

2. Many lament a system that is unfair, discriminatory, and one where the American Dream is out of reach.

Sentences such as this, as with the first revision in the previous example, can often be repaired by supporting the middle element of the list with phrasing parallel to that of the first and last elements, but the final element is problematic, too, so the simplest approach is to pair unfair and discriminatory: “Many lament a system that is unfair and discriminatory, and one where the American Dream is out of reach.” (Those words may seem redundant, but in context they are distinct.)

3. The convergence of increased regulation, the need for modernization and innovation, combined with an exponential increase in cyber risk, creates a major challenge for insurance companies. 

The complication in this sentence is that “combined with an exponential increase in cyber risk” is treated as a list item rather than a related but distinct parenthetical. In addition, the second item, with its “a and b” structure, is already complex. But the simple first item and the complex second item can easily be bridged with a conjunction rather than a comma to become syntactically valid: “The convergence of increased regulation and the need for modernization and innovation, combined with an exponential increase in cyber risk, creates a major challenge for insurance companies.”

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