Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stumbling into incoherence

Few sentences by professional writers can match this one from today’s Guardian by Mike Selvey, discussing a cricket innings by Jonathan Trott, for hapless incoherence:
His career is turning out some remarkable figures, however, for 19 Test matches, after which statistics are starting to gain some meaning, have brought him an average that is approaching 70, which, the records will show, is, for those with at least 20 innings, second only to Donald Bradman.
Don’t let this happen to your writing
Guardian Online, 29 May 2011
One thing you can be sure of: neither the writer nor the sub read that paragraph out loud before pressing ‘save’, and it’s worth investigating how someone who makes a living from writing managed to get himself into such a mess.

Firstly and most obviously, the sentence comes in at 49 words. I won’t set up Microsoft as the highest authority on grammar and style, but our friends from Seattle sensibly suggest that a sentence becomes difficult to read if it goes on beyond 45 words, and it’s hard to argue with that. It doesn't help that the previous sentence is 60 words and is almost as convoluted. So I can't really explain what the word “however” means in the paragraph above because I’m not sure what point is being qualified.

Secondly, Selvey gives us two words with alternative meanings: “however” and “for”; and puts them in contexts that seem designed to confuse. “However” is best used, if at all, at the start of the sentence. It isn’t used wrongly here, even in the unusual situation of following a comma, but it is an early sign of a writer losing control of a sentence. He immediately follows it with “for” in its less common sense of “because” and then sticks in one of many conditional clauses, separating “for” from the part of the clause that might have shown the reader which meaning of the word was intended.

Thereafter, the conditional clauses pile up on top of each other like inattentive drivers losing their sense of direction on a fog-bound motorway. Again, the police show up in numbers in the form of commas, but we already know that the effort of clearing up the mess is going to be beyond them. Nine commas are deployed in a vain attempt to restore order, but the result is still verbal gridlock.

I defy anyone to understand this sentence on first reading.

So, what is Selvey actually trying to say? At its simplest, the sentence says that Trott’s batting average is impressive, being second only to the legendary Donald Bradman (who averaged 99.94 in his test career). That seems simple enough, but Selvey needs to get a few qualifiers in:
  1. This paragraph is in contrast to the criticisms made in the preceding paragraph
  2. Other players have better test averages, but only over a small number of innings
  3. For his average to be significant, a player needs to have played at least 20 innings at test-match level
  4. Trott’s average is nearly 70
  5. He has played 19 test matches. (The fact that he has played 31 test innings would have been a more relevant statistic. Still, if a professional writer can’t even get words to make sense then it’s absurdly optimistic to expect him to handle numbers.)
So, how should he have gone about it? My suggestion, using as much of Selvey’s original paragraph as possible, is as follows:
Even so, Trott is turning out some remarkable test figures. He has played 31 innings at an average of 66.77, which puts him second only to Donald Bradman among players with at least 20 innings (which is when statistics start to gain some meaning).
That only saves five words, but cutting this lunking imbecile of a sentence into three creates clarity where none existed before. Tellingly, the nine commas of the original have been reduced to two, with a pair of full stops and a pair of brackets shouldering the burden.

The end of the football season means that we are to be spared Kevin McCarra’s wretched prose in The Guardian, at least until August. But if this article is anything to go by, it seems that the paper has someone to keep its readers baffled and confused – and this sub-editor gleefully angry – throughout the cricket season.

If I want to be mean, I should also compare this statement from elsewhere in the article:
It will take something quite extraordinary to see anything but a draw from the first Test … We have a dead duck here, it appears
…with this headline from today’s paper:
England seal dramatic final day win

Moral: a sentence is a graceful creature. Load too much onto its shoulders and you might break its back.

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