Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sentence doctor: don't lose the thread

This sentence is so complicated that the writer has tied himself in knots and said the opposite of what he means. It’s bad enough that you hide your meaning from your reader, but so much worse when you manage to hide it from yourself:
“Compared to the loss-making average east-west container freight rate of $1,110 per unit in full-year 2009, the 1Q10 rate of $1,295 is still low by historical standards and must be below the breakeven point for carriers, even allowing for their recent cost cuts.”
Look at “compared to” (it should be “compared with”, but we’ll let that go for now). Strip out the extraneous words and the sentence actually reads, “$1,295 is low compared with $1,110,” which is nonsense.

This is the danger of the “compared to/with” construction so beloved of business writers: it declares a relationship between two things while excusing the writer from saying – and sometimes even thinking – what that relationship really is. It is harder to fall into this trap if we have the courage to use that beautiful, simple, neglected word “than”. 

So we should write “x is lower than y” instead of “Compared to … [followed by 10 words]… $1,110, … [then another 10 words] … $1,295 is still low.” All those extra words only serve to sever the logical link between the key parts of the sentence, such that before he is half way through the sentence the writer has forgotten what he is comparing with what. This is how I talk when I’m drunk. My friends forgive me because I’m happy to buy a round and sometimes fall over amusingly. Our readers are less tolerant.

The following has almost the same word count but is much easier to understand:
“The east-west rate of $1,295 in the first quarter is a big improvement on the $1,110 average for 2009. But it is still low by historical standards and must be below the breakeven point for carriers, even after their recent cost cuts.”
Mostly this is because the words are in a natural order: “x is a big improvement on y” is better than “compared to y, x is low”. I have also replaced "1Q10" with "the first quarter", because words are easier to understand than numbers, and I have deleted "full-year" because it's redundant.

Moral: Keep sentences simple, especially when making comparisons, and use comparatives followed by 'than'.


  1. Keep it simple, got it :)

    Thanks for the example!

  2. Sometimes you get too close to the text though, and just can't see it. I write fiction, and have to apply Orwell's 10 rules all the time.(Especially Rule 10!).

    1. My copy of Politics and the English Language only goes up to six, although Orwell did publish 11 rules for making tea. Rule 10 is: "Pour the tea into the cup first."

  3. Business writers' constant use of "compared with" in sentences such as "The firm posted its fourth consecutive quarter of net profit, at US$40.6 million, compared with a net loss of US$42.8 million a year earlier" really makes me want to slap them and say "don't use 'compared with' in that sentence, you fakhwit, you're not stating any sort of comparison."

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