Incomplete Thought Writing Mistakes

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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Writers sometimes sabotage their efforts to express themselves by leaving key information out of a sentence, resulting in confusing statements. Each of the following examples suffers from obfuscation due to one of more missing words. Discussion after each sentence explains the problem, and a revision provides a solution.

1. It has been called one of, if not the best film Smith has directed.

This type of error, frequently committed by professional and amateur writers alike, is the result of an attempt to create a parenthetical parallel, one that fails because the sentence lacks all the necessary elements. In most attempts of this type, an additional comma would follow film, to set off the parenthetical, but the sentence is syntactically invalid when the supposedly expendable parenthetical is omitted; the result is “It has been called one of Smith has directed.” The flaw here and in similar erroneous constructions is that the key phrase must be repeated, appearing in both the main clause and the parenthetical: “It has been called one of the best films, if not the best film, Smith has directed.” (Remove the parenthetical, and the main clause is syntactically sound: “It has been called one of the best films Smith has directed.”)

2. Lenders should proactively assess their ability and success in providing capital to minorities and their communities.

The mistake here is the writer’s assumption that ability and success are parallel, but each word is merely the basis of corresponding phrases that must be extended and located appropriately: However, not only do they require distinct prepositions, but providing is the correct inflection of the verb only in reference to success, so the sentence must be further revised for it to make grammatical sense: “Lenders should proactively assess their ability to provide, and success in providing, capital to minorities and their communities.” (To avoid the parenthetical phrase, revise as shown here: “Lenders should proactively assess their ability to provide capital to minorities and their communities and their success in doing so.”)

3. The product’s naturally occurring electrolytes are significantly higher than other brands.

Other brands are erroneously compared with electrolytes; the comparison should be between the electrolytes in one product and the electrolytes in other brands, so either electrolytes or a pronoun representing it, plus the preposition in, must be inserted into the sentence: “The product’s naturally occurring electrolytes are significantly higher than those in other brands.”

4. Financial institutions are no longer required to implement the rule and retain the option of including mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts.

This sentence does not intend to express that two requirements for financial institutions have been lifted; the intention is to state that one requirement has been lifted, while an option has been retained. To indicate that these are separate points, the sentence should be structured to consist of two independent clauses separated by punctuation and a conjunction: “Financial institutions are no longer required to implement the rule, and they retain the option of including mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts.”

5. Most categories show decreased totals compared to our results from last year.

The equivalents here are not totals in most categories and results from last year; they are totals in most categories this year and totals in most categories last year. That equivalence is expressed simply by inserting the pronoun those and the preposition in before the phrase describing the comparison: “Most categories show decreased totals compared to those in our results last year.”

6. Machines are so much better at analyzing large volumes of data than people.

The implication is that machines perform analysis of large volumes of data better than they perform analysis of people, but the point is that machines outperform people in analyzing large volumes of data; to clarify the correspondence between machines and people, simply tack a verb onto the end of the sentence: “Machines are so much better at analyzing large volumes of data than people are.”

7. Contracting teams may also want to identify contracts just below that threshold but that would be profitable if renegotiated at higher rates.

“That is” or “that are” (or that followed by another “to-be” verb form), like that itself, are sometimes optional in a sentence, but if one of two corresponding phrases is preceded by such a phrase, the other must be as well: “Contracting teams may also want to identify contracts that are just below that threshold but that would be profitable if renegotiated at higher rates.” Alternatively, the sentence may be revised to convey correspondence with other wording: “Contracting teams may also want to identify contracts just below that threshold but potentially profitable if renegotiated at higher rates.”

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2 Responses to “Incomplete Thought Writing Mistakes”

  • Michael W. Perry, medical writer

    Many, many thanks for this article! You describe errors that are typically spotted by only most talented editors and proofreaders—people I labor to emulate. Authors and readers alike typically miss the fact that a sentence isn’t quite saying what they think. They unconsciously amend to make it have more sense.

    I would, however suggest that this isn’t the only way to amend the first sentence:
    —–
    (Remove the parenthetical, and the main clause is syntactically sound: “It has been called one of the best films Smith has directed.”)
    —–

    My suggestion would be to not be wishy-washy. While it’s certainly true that some have called the film “one of the best,” it’s also probably true that some have called it his best film. Saying that is not only OK, it may make for better writing.

    That is because when you’re referring to the opinion of others, it’s perfectly OK to describe what they believe. There’s no need to water that down to “one of” status. You’re responsible for accurately describing the opinion of some. There’s no need to broaden a POV to take in more people or to make an idea seem more plausible by making it mushy and broad. If some think this was his best film, say so. That will heighten what you write, pro or con, about that POV.

  • venqax

    I think No. 3 still needs more adjustment to be clear. “The product’s naturally occurring electrolytes are significantly higher than other brands.” Or, “… higher than those in other brands.” What is “higher”, exactly? The number or amount of electrolytes, the quality of the electrolytes, their position in space? I don’t know, not being well-acquainted with electrolytes and their capabilities.

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