or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, July 21, 2005


First you need to read tony pius' comment in today's earlier posting. (It's unrelated to the posting itself, but I'm fine with that: there's all kinds of room for grammar snarking in these parts.)

Okay. Now that we're all on the same page:

That problem with parentheses drives me up the wall, too. And it isn't just parentheses: people do it with commas in exactly the same way. (It still amounts to what you call "parenthetical text", if by "parenthetical" we mean "qualifying".) To give a randomly discovered example, here's a quotation from this otherwise irrelevant story:

"In our wild aspirations, we think PayPal has the potential to be as big, if not bigger than, eBay," says Jeff Jordan, the eBay executive in charge of the PayPal subsidiary.

"In our wild aspirations"? Where did this guy learn to talk, anyway? But that's not at issue here; what's at issue is that he's missing a conjunction. (Perhaps he was actually speaking and not writing, so I should cut him a little slack; but this sort of thing happens all the time in writing, too, so the principle is the same.) And there were at least two correct sentences just waiting to be uttered: "...as big as, if not bigger than, eBay" or "as big as eBay, if not bigger." If Jeff Jordan had in fact said those words, and I were the story's writer or editor, I would have corrected it, using a little justifiable journalistic license to prevent Jeff Jordan from seeming like a boob.

It's not really a problem with parentheses or commas: it's a problem with parallel sentence structure. But your solution is exactly right: deconstruct the sentence and analyze it carefully. (This is also a solution for any other potential writing problems. It is, in fact, the only solution.)

The trouble is that people are no longer being taught how to dismantle their sentences and examine them for structure and clarity. First the schools got rid of sentence diagramming (abstract and tricky, yes, but a stellar way to really peer inside the guts of the language). Then they got rid of any kind of analytical grammar whatsoever. And now most people seem to think that if they can at least be understood, more or less, most of the time, then their writing is acceptable. Those people are wrong.


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