We came across this statement in the Financial Times in some post-election analysis article about Barack Obama last year :
It is the failing of liberal technocrats to think reason governs how people act.
What’s wrong with that sentence?
Technically, nothing. The sentence is grammatically correct.
But how many times did you have to re-read it before you figured out what it was saying?
We got to the combination of “think” and “reason” and we stumbled. Maybe you were more in tune with the writer as you were cruising along. This one was a stumper for us at first.
Examining the possible causes of that, one issue that we identified is it’s got multiple words that look like verbs which are not functioning as verbs in this sentence. The problem we hit was that we were motoring along through the sentence assuming it was going in one direction, and it was not. It veered off when we least expected it. We thought the phrase, “It is the failing of the liberal technocrats to think” was a complete clause. Nope. The “failing” that the author is identifying is more than that. The original phrasing led us, as the reader, in one direction and then pulled the rug out from under right when we thought we were approaching our destination.
Another issue, not nearly as severe of course, is that it’s written in passive voice. Don’t know how to check for passive voice? This is the best way ever. Passive voice is not wrong but it’s also not strong. You want your essays, including every single sentence in them, to be strong.
Anyone want to try rewriting this sentence?
Last time we invited audience participation in such an exercise, we didn’t get much (thanks Souvik and apoorvbhargava!!) but maybe this one is easier and you’ll want to take a stab at it? We allow anonymous comments here on the blahg (if you’re currently signed in, you can always sign out before commenting) – if you want to say something publicly, all we need it your email address which is not published.
So, this is an invitation: Please leave your suggested revision of this sentence in the comments. Or if you don’t want to get your hands so dirty, you could just identify the verbs (or verb-like words) in this sentence. We saw an abundance of those, and they were at least part of the confusion for us.
Good essays are just as much about the revision process as they are about the ideas you’re trying to convey. Getting better at writing happens by working on it. Revising someone else’s work, where you see the clunkiness in what they have written and come up with a better way of doing it, is a great way to hone your own skills. You do NOT want your adcom reader stumbling when they are going through your precious work.