Monday, April 11, 2011

For want of an "a" the sentence was lost

I wonder sometimes how people manage without articles. I'm guessing that my Indian author here isn't used to them, but that doesn't excuse the casualness that makes his comment so hard to understand. By stuffing the comment with comfortable but meaningless words that readers expect to find in such a report, he has lost track of what he really wanted to say:

The newbuilding [i.e.shipbuilding] market became better this week with few activities reported in the tanker sector. Korean yards have quite dominant and acquiring high volume tonnage.
I shouldn't worry about the articles, since this bullet-point report is destined to be translated into Japanese, which is a language uncluttered by such irrelevances as articles, plurals, genders or even a future tense. But if I'm going to make the meaning clear for the lads in Tokyo, then I've first got to understand it myself.

Firstly, what does he mean by "became better"? Obviously the word is "improved", but that doesn't solve the problem. Better for whom? Buyers or sellers? We're only five words in and already we have a puzzle that needs to be solved.

Then we get "few activities", and here the writer has fluffed a chance to clear up the mystery. Business writers love the word "activity" because it denotes some sort of businessy goings-on without the writer having to state what they are. Because I know the nature of this report, I'm pretty sure he means "orders", but that's not enough. There is a subtle difference between "few" and "a few". Compare:

The writer made a few mistakes
The writer made few mistakes
Even though "few" always means "a small number", to the native English speaker "a few mistakes" is negative while "few mistakes" is positive.

Once all the odd phrasing is removed, the sentence can be rewritten as:
The shipbuilding market benefited from the small number of orders placed. 
However, the next sentence says something different: "Korean yards have quite dominant and acquiring high volume tonnage." The obvious errors in the verbs (one missing and one in the wrong form) are easily spotted and the sentence deciphered, but now it completely contradicts the first sentence. For all its ugliness and mistakes, this paragraph would have made sense if the writer had written "a few" instead of "few" in the first sentence.

So, after far more work than should have been necessary, the Angry Sub-Editor is a little bit more angry, partly because his final edit now reads like this:
The newbuilding market improved this week with a number of orders reported in the tanker sector. Korean yards dominated, acquiring a high volume of tonnage.
I don't like like saying "a high volume of tonnage", but with no idea what the numbers are, there's not much more I can do. The Indian office is closed and the report has to be in Tokyo by first thing tomorrow (about midnight tonight my time). I could go through the 15 spreadsheets attached to the report, but even sub-editors have to sleep. Sometimes, you just have to let it go.

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