What it is is… And Other Paths of Doom

“What we are getting is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding what went on in the past.”


Whenever you see this construction, get rid of it. It’s quite simple: “We are getting a powerful tool for understanding what went on in past.” No need for “what we are,” etc. and especially no need for “incredibly.”



Since “We are getting” is inept, why not say “We have a powerful tool….”? They are already using that tool, so they must have it. No “getting” required.


Another example from the same article:

“They looked at ancient and modern DNA of wild and domestic pigs, including specimens from the Iron Gates sites.What they found was that the farmers brought their pigs with them, but that over three thousand years, those pigs interbred with European wild boar.”



“They looked at ancient and modern DNA of wild and domestic pigs, including specimens from the Iron Gates sites. They found that the farmers [had] brought their pigs with them. During the next three thousand years, those pigs interbred with European wild boar.”


Even better:

“They analyzed ancient and modern DNA of pigs, both wild and domestic…”


Variations on the phrase “looked at” represent a common crime of carelessness against the language. Radio announcers often say, “Looking at the weather, it should be sunny today….” It is a verbal tic that has no place in good writing.


The phrasing “DNA of wild and domestic pigs…” might suggest that the scientists studied one group of pigs that was both wild and domestic. The writer means to say that they studied DNA from two groups, one wild, the other domestic.


“An Archaeological Puzzle on the Danube”

– James Gorman, The New York Times, August 20, 2019

Order in an English Sentence

The structure of sentences in English is simple: Subject-verb-object. “John kicked the ball.” That’s it. Everything else hangs on that structure. Sometimes you won’t even need an object: “Jesus wept.” Of course, the rules allow you to elaborate that structure endlessly. In the hands of an expert craftsman, that produces a lovely structure with a dramatic arc, which is easy to follow, as in the opening of Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron:

Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses, which stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond.


But without putting in years of practice, those who attempt such complexity are asking for trouble. As they add more and more words and phrases to that simple structure, they run the risk of separating the subject from the verb or the verb from the object in such a way that working memory can’t keep track of what’s being said. Here is a sentence from the New Yorker magazine, published January 25, 2010:

Two and a half centuries later, in a reaction to the revelation that Benjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments,” the 1995 account of the author’s experiences as a Latvian Jewish child experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, was a fiction (the author was a Swiss Gentile whose real name was Bruno Grosjean), a Holocaust survivor named Ruth Klüger suggested that a fraudulent memoir–particularly a fraudulent account of extreme trauma–could, precisely because it lacks truth value, never amount to much more than a kind of perverse aesthetic experience, a trashy entertainment (in the more familiar sense of that word)…


Believe it or not, that’s not the end of that sentence. The effect is one of acute distress. The eye wants to move forward but has to backtrack, not because the reader is engaged and wants to enrich the associations and deepen the meaning, but because he has lost the thread and is confused. The result is what Orwell refers to as, “slovenliness and vagueness,” and such writing shows just how much havoc you can cause by splitting open the natural structure of a sentence and stuffing in whatever nonsense pops into your head. That’s to say nothing of the other crimes committed in that sentence. Of which more later.

Syntactical Fools

Richard Mitchell, a professor at Glassboro State College, devoted a good deal of his time to battling what he called, “the failures of thought and logic which always accompany bad English. And vice versa.” This is from a memorandum written by someone at his school: “This study supported the conclusion that practicing academic deans could benefit by possessing an expectancy of being able to control their work environment in order to successfully implement role responsibilities.”


Ordinarily I would try to pick such a sentence apart and reconstruct it to say what the writer meant to say. But this sentence is so fatally flawed that I have no idea what (s)he wanted to say. I could offer a few ideas for improving it. But as Mitchell put it in his newsletter, The Underground Grammarian, “The betterment of fools, Goethe tells us, is the appropriate business of other fools.” 


Mitchell went on: “The Underground Grammarian does not seek to educate anyone. We intend rather to ridicule, humiliate, and infuriate those who abuse our language not so that they will do better but so that they will stop using language entirely or at least go away.”


So I will go on to other sentences that we can more easily recast and advise this writer to think before he speaks.

Don’t Use False Titles

“Legendary physicist Richard Feynman was the first person to provide an intuitive understanding of why relativity requires the existence of antiparticles, which also yielded a graphic demonstration that empty space is not quite so empty.”


from A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss


President Lincoln had a real title: President. Likewise, General Dwight D. Eisenhower shows the use of a legitimate title. A description of someone’s job should not be used as a title: “Jazz drummer Elvin Jones will appear….” Better: “Elvin Jones, the jazz drummer, will appear….” Or: “The jazz drummer Elvin Jones…”


But common as it is in newspapers and magazines, slapping just any appositive into that position of being a formal title is crude and incompetent.


Also note in the quote from Krauss, the word “legendary” is unnecessary. If he is legendary, you already know about the legend, and the author needn’t draw attention to it. The mistake is easy to correct: “The physicist Richard Feynman was the first person to provide…” or better still: “Richard Feynman was the first physicist to provide…”


In addition, the closing clause of the sentence is useless as it stands: “which also yielded a graphic demonstration that empty space is not quite so empty.” We have no idea what he’s talking about when he refers back to something with the word “which.”


A really brilliant guy in need of a modestly competent editor.


Keep it simple. Keep it active.

Orwell is Alive and Pretty Sick

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness…. As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.”


from Why I write by George Orwell


Orwell concludes that the writer who writes this way–by means of mimicry–“is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”

Don’t Ask Rhetorical Questions

“Was there any symbolic language, they asked, that could employ the strengths rather than the weaknesses of chimpanzee anatomy?


“The Gardners hit upon a brilliant idea: Teach a chimpanzee American sign language….”


from The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan


If you are going answer the question, don’t ask it. It’s sloppy style.

Throw Mama From the Train a Kiss

A misplaced modifier can be funny or just plain confusing. In any case, it ought to be corrected.


“Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.”


from Dispatches by Michael Herr


This says that the medics were going out at night. Using the second person (“gave you pills”) probably led to the mistake. There was no need to use it, because the rest of the passage is in the first person. Better: “When we went out at night, the medics gave us pills…”




“A son of the British Empire, Alan Turing’s social origins lay just on the borderline between the landed gentry and the commercial classes.”


from Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges


This says that Turing’s social origins were a son, which is nonsensical.

On Harmony

“Sounds interlock and intermingle

     like the five colors of embroidery,

     each enhancing the others.”


from Wen Fu by Lu Chi (261-303), known in English by the title The Art of Writing


Perspective: Where the Sidewalk Ends

“Part of scientific method is to find out something and then see if you can find out the same thing another way. For that reason, this floating laboratory will use a variety of means to examine the dead zone at the same time but from different persepectives.”


From: Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth by Alanna Mitchell


She uses the word “perspectives” when she actually means “points of view” or “viewpoints.” The word “perspective” is best used when referring to that place in works of art where the railroad tracks seem to merge.


These two sentences suffer from a number of other ailments, but I won’t go into them here. See if you can see them.

Writer’s Block

            Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel…” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel…” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. “Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”


            You could be Joel, even if your name is Jenny. Or Julie, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.


From Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee


Don’t know who John is? Look here: