3 More Cases of Confusion Between a Thing and Its Name

By Mark Nichol

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One fairly infrequent but prominent error in sentence composition is the careless confusion of a word or a phrase with the person, place, or thing that it represents, which usually occurs when the term is being defined or explained. The sentences below have this problem, or a related one, in common; discussion and a revision follow each example.

1. Police identified Jones as the main fence, a term for people who buy stolen items from street-level thieves and resell them.

Here, the criminal slang word fence is defined, but the main clause refers to the person so named, while the subordinate clause explicitly states that the term is just that, and not the particular person with the intermediary role in the sale of stolen items. For clarity, the definition should be distanced and distinguished from the reference, as here: “Police identified Jones as the main fence. (The term fence is slang for someone who buys stolen items from street-level thieves and resells them.)” (Note, too, the parenthesis of the definition and that someone replaces people for consistency of singular form with fence.)

Alternatively, a less intrusive solution is to employ a gloss, or a brief definition of a term linked by the conjunction or to a clause containing a term that may be unfamiliar: “Police identified Jones as the main fence, or buyer of stolen goods intended for resale.” (Note that the sentence preceding this revision itself includes a gloss.)

2. The taxonomy includes definitions for key terms such as “critical business services,” which are services that demonstrate a broader economic importance beyond a firm.

The term “critical business services” refers to the services defined, but the phrase itself does not constitute those services, so the use of a form of the verb “to be,” which indicates an equivalence, should not grammatically link the term and the definition. Replace are with a verb phrase that indicates that the term applies to, but does not directly represent, the services as defined: “The taxonomy includes definitions for key terms such as ‘critical business services,’ which refers to services that demonstrate a broader economic importance beyond a firm.”

3. The diagram below is a typical process that listed companies undergo to identify and define reporting disclosure to meet compliance requirements.

The diagram itself is not a typical process; it is, rather, a representation of such, and the wording should reflect this distinction: “The diagram below represents a typical process that listed companies undergo to identify and define reporting disclosure to meet compliance requirements.”

4. Like an Agatha Christie novel, there’s a mustache-twirling businessman, a spurned lover, and an unstable patient.

A related issue is when like is used to set up a comparison when the elements of something are erroneously being compared to something else rather than to the elements of that something else. Here, a true-life crime story involves a businessman, a lover, and a patient, each with traits that might define characters in a murder mystery written by Agatha Christie. However, the people involved in the crime are not being compared to a novel; they are being compared to characters in a novel, so the wording used to set up the comparison must be revised: “Suggestive of characters out of an Agatha Christie novel, a mustache-twirling businessman, a spurned lover, and an unstable patient populate this scandalous story.”

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1 Response to “3 More Cases of Confusion Between a Thing and Its Name”

  • Steve Royster

    Each of the last two is a “hot mess,” but I don’t have a problem with the usages in Nos. 1 and 2. I understand your explanations and agree that your revisions are good. But I disagree that the originals are wrong: I find their logic and syntax sound.

    Now I’m not so happy with calling No. 4 a problem, and I think the revision is wordy. I need to stop!

    By the time someone sees this comment, you will have adjusted the title to “*4* More Cases of Confusion Between a Thing and Its Name.”

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