3 Cases of Sentence-Composition Confusion
By Mark Nichol
It’s not only quite possible but also quite common for what initially appears to be a well-written sentence to turn out to fail to express what the writer intended. Readers may be able to understand that intent, and may not even notice the error, but confusion is likely. Here are three sentences that don’t quite say what the writer thinks they say, followed by discussions and revisions.
1. Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer named John Smith.
This sentence literally states that Jones’s name is actually John Smith; “another future Hall of Famer named John Smith” implies that the previously mentioned person shares that name. To eliminate this distraction, simply replace name with a comma: “Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer, John Smith. (Alternatively, change another to fellow and delete named: “Jones teamed up with fellow future Hall of Famer John Smith.”)
2. Gillian Anderson was offered half of David Duchovny’s salary for the return of The X-Files.
Here, the take-away is that half of David Duchovny’s salary was taken away and offered to Gillian Anderson—obviously not the intended meaning, which is that Duchovny was paid twice as much as Anderson to return to the television series. The fact that Duchovny’s salary is mentioned only for comparative purposes should be emphasized: “Gillian Anderson was offered half of what David Duchovny was paid to return to The X-Files.” (Alternatively, write “Gillian Anderson was offered half as much as David Duchovny was paid to return to The X-Files.”)
Note, too, the rewording in each case of the end of the sentence, which originally was written as if to suggest that she gave the series back in exchange for taking half of Duchovny’s salary, rather than that in exchange for reprising her role in a new edition of the series, she is earning half of what her male co-star is being paid.
3. I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development, but finding the first house he built was about as easy as locating men who worked on his construction crews.
To compare one difficult task (finding the first house a housing developer built) with another (tracking down his contractors) by writing that one was as easy as the other could confuse readers. (As it is, only the counterpoint conjunction but provides a clue that the second and third objectives were a challenge to achieve.). For clarity, replace “as easy as” with “as difficult as”: “I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development, but finding the first house he built was about as difficult as locating men who worked on his construction crews.”