A Quiz About Clarity
Writers usually don’t mean to be duplicitous when they write one thing when they mean another; it’s just that what they intended to communicate is not what they communicated. The following sentences demonstrate some of the types of misunderstandings that result from careless composition. Try your hand at repairing the damage, and then take a look at my solutions at the bottom of the page:
1. “The postwar suburban ideal was a Cadillac and a fur coat like a movie star.”
2. “His legacy was also one of social revolutionary, humanitarian, and artist.”
3. “A letter can be mailed via the Pony Express reenactors for the 1860 price of $5.”
4. “That established history is being challenged by a rare book collector and author, John Doe and Jane Smith.”
5. “Although DNA testing is highly effective, those involved in criminal investigations do not always use it because of its high cost.”
1. The sentence implies that the ideal was ownership of two things: a Cadillac, and a fur coat that resembles a movie star. We know it means possessing a Cadillac and a fur coat, as movie stars were wont to do, but the sentence fails because it doesn’t explicitly state that. This revision does: “The postwar suburban ideal was driving a Cadillac and wearing a fur coat, like a movie star.”
2. The subject’s legacy cannot be that of someone with these identities, but it can be associated with that of such a person: “His legacy was that of a social revolutionary, humanitarian, and artist.”
3. The final phrase of this sentence lacks clarity. The point is that in 1860, sending a letter by Pony Express cost $5, and that today, for the same amount — a more modest total than it was about 150 years ago — one can send a letter on a commemorative ride carried out by reenactors. The sentence should be revised to make this relationship clearer: “A letter can be mailed via the Pony Express reenactors for the same fee it cost in 1860: $5.”
4. As written, this sentence suggests that the challenger is a book collector and author who is rare, and that the person’s name is John Doe and Jane Smith. Hyphenating rare and book to demonstrate that they team up to modify collector, and recasting the sentence to join each single epithet to the respective name, makes all clear: “That established history is being challenged by a rare-book collector, John Doe, and author Jane Smith.”
5. DNA testing is not always used of its high cost? Then why is it always used? Back up a little bit — the sentence means that DNA testing’s high cost restricts the frequency of its use. This important distinction is conveyed with the simple reversal of two phrases and the insertion of a comma between them: “Although DNA testing is highly effective, because of its high cost, those involved in criminal investigations do not always use it.”
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