One Word Can Mar Your Meaning
Each of the three sentences shown below contains a minor error that nevertheless muddles the intended meaning. The discussion following each example identifies the problem and sets up a resolving revision.
1. “Instead of focusing on rebuilding the Republican Party, she said that party leaders should focus on rebuilding the middle class.”
This sentence implies that the person referred to opted to make the recommendation to party leaders in lieu of focusing on rebuilding the party; the action of focusing is erroneously assigned to her. What the writer meant to write is that the subject recommended that party leaders rebuild the middle class rather than the party. Omission of that after the attribution “she said” clarifies this meaning: “Instead of focusing on rebuilding the Republican Party, she said, party leaders should focus on rebuilding the middle class.”
2. “The project would cost $250 million to $300 million to build and receive a $400 million endowment upon opening.”
According to this sentence, the project’s $250–$300 million budget would be used to build and receive an endowment. But two distinct facts are mentioned about the project: It would require $250–$300 million to build, and it would receive an additional $400 million as an endowment after completion of the building. To clearly state this meaning, the sentence’s parallel structure must be bolstered with a second use of would, between the conjunction and and the verb in the second clause: “The project would cost $250 million to $300 million to build and would receive a $400 million endowment upon opening.”
3. “If you’re interested in learning more about her work, the scholar who has delved most deeply into it is John Smith.”
OK, this revision involves swapping in two words for one, but the mistake is as small and as easy to overlook as those in the examples above. This statement illustrates a subtle error known as a false conditional: The sentence is structured so that the identity of the most deeply delving scholar is contingent on your interest in learning more about someone else’s work; if you’re not interested, apparently, John Smith loses that distinction. By changing the way the sentence refers to your potential interest, this logical fallacy is erased: “In case you’re interested in learning more about her work, the scholar who has delved most deeply into it is John Smith.”