3 Sentences That Present Obstacles to Comprehension

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, the statement’s wording or syntax problematically interferes with reader comprehension. Discussion and revision of each example points the way to a clear solution.

1. He exchanged greetings with leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

This sentence implies that Afghanistan and Zimbabwe are names of leaders, because the writer is trying to use from both on its own and as part of a “from . . . to” range. For the statement to make sense, the category of which the two names are examples must be specified, preceded by a preposition linking leaders with that word: “He exchanged greetings with leaders of countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.”

2. Focusing on H1-B visa reform has caught the technology industry’s attention, which has long argued that it must attract the best and most qualified workers to compete in the global marketplace. 

Here, the attention of the technology industry, rather than the industry itself, is said to have argued a proposition. To properly identify who or what is doing the arguing, that entity must be mentioned immediately before the subordinate clause, as shown here: “Focusing on H1-B visa reform has caught the attention of the technology industry, which has long argued that it must attract the best and most qualified workers to compete in the global marketplace.”

3. Companies should follow a common privacy framework such as the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Privacy and Security Framework for Electronic Exchange of Individually Identifiable Health Information.

Take care not to overwhelm the reader with excessively long, complex strings of words in proper names. Here, a standard developed by a federal agency is treated as if the agency’s name is part of the standard’s designation. A simple (but scarcely more effective) solution is to use the possessive form of the agency’s name. Better yet, treat the connection of the agency’s name to the standard as a subordinate clause: “Companies should follow a common privacy framework such as the Privacy and Security Framework for Electronic Exchange of Individually Identifiable Health Information, a standard developed by the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.”

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6 Responses to “3 Sentences That Present Obstacles to Comprehension”

  • Matthew Brown

    While sentence one is technically incorrect but colloquially clear, that third one was unreadable. I agree that it is poor but for very different reasons. #3 tries to say too much with one sentence. The information there is the work of an entire paragraph, not a single sentence. That said, I have seen examples like it in the wild.

  • Sean

    Sentence #2 may have another problem, this time with its subject. “Focusing on H1-B visa reform has caught the attention of the technology industry…” This asserts that it’s the focus that has caught the industry’s attention, rather than H1-B visa reform itself. The sentence should probably be recast as “H1-B visa reform has caught the attention of the technology industry, which has long argued that it must attract the best and most qualified workers to compete in the global marketplace.” Or, if it really is some third party’s focus that has caught the industry’s attention, the sentence would be clarified by explicitly identifying that third party: “The legislature’s increased focus on H1-B visa reform has caught the attention of the technology industry, which has long argued that it must attract the best and most qualified workers to compete in the global marketplace.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “He exchanged greetings with leaders from Argentina to Zululand,” would follow a long arc of countries/regions on four continents: South America, North America, Asia, and Africa. These would include most of the largest countries in the world, too: Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Canada, (Alaska), Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, The (former) Sudan (which has split in half now), Libya, Algeria, Chad, The Congo, and South Africa.
    Cutting it short: “He exchanged greetings with leaders from Argentina to Oman.” (alpha to omega).

  • Dale A. Wood

    “He exchanged greetings with leaders from Australia to Zululand,” would cover a wide range of capitals/countries/regions not only alphabetically but geographically: Canberra, Djakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, New Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul, Baghdad, Damascus, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Harare, Cape Town. (Except for the lone “New”, I did not want anything that starts with the second half of the alphabet. I am also fond of the letter “K” as in Kameroun – the German spelling, and Cameroon used to be a German possession. )

  • Dale A. Wood

    I came here to say essentially the same thing that TheBluebird11 had written already: The sentence #1 is all right because of its parallel with the well-known expression “everything from A to Z”.
    “He exchanged greetings with leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe,” makes good sense because of this.
    The Ancient Greeks would have put it as “everything from alpha to omega”. We could say “all the presidents from Adams to Obama”,
    or “all the presidents from Abraham Lincoln to ‘Old Kinderhook’,” and this would make sense as long as you knew that “Old Kinderhook” = “Martin Van Buren”, O.K.?

    We could say, “…leaders from Algeria to Oman.”
    “Oman” is the only country now whose name starts with “O”.
    This one would also imply something else about the leaders whom he greeted: Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E., and finally OMAN ! All Moslem-Arab countries, and all on roughly the same latitude, from west to east, and with Mecca in the middle.

    If you wanted to continue in our alphabet, you could toss in Yemen.
    You could also put Syria in there somewhere in between Palestine and Iraq, at the risk of going too far north.
    D.A.W.

  • TheBluebird11

    I understand the issue with example #2, and example #3 was just incomprehensible (until the sentence was recast).
    But the first example seems clear to me as given, and does not imply a vague range, as you suggest in your fix (“ranging from…”). There is no real relationship between Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, politically or geographically; the writer creates a relationship that is random, but not vague. It is clear to me to be a play on the expression “from A to Z,” the way someone trying to express the kinds of animals that boarded the ark as “aardvarks to zebras,” or the kinds of vegetables​ that can be used as “avocados to zucchini,” simply because examples with the letters A and Z are available and not because there is any other connection between them. It’s not a range; it’s total inclusion. I hope I am explaining myself!

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