Title: Long noun forms make sentences exasperatingly difficult to grasp
Post by: Joe Carillo on November 19, 2010, 09:52:15 PM
When editing manuscripts for publication, one of the most time-consuming problems I often encounter and must deal with is the long noun form. By this, I mean the subject or doer of the action in the sentence needs a great many words to be stated completely, thus unduly delaying the delivery of the verb in the sentence. One such long noun form is to be found in the following lead passage of an actual media release a few years back:
“A free seminar on using novel nutritional technologies and innovative techniques to help Filipino poultry raisers optimize their yield and increase their profit in the light of rising feed and production expenses has been set at the EDSA Shangri-la Hotel at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, its organizer, Alltech Biotechnology Corp. said.”
The subject of that sentence is, of course, the 32-word-long noun phrase “a free seminar on using novel nutritional technologies and innovative techniques to help Filipino poultry raisers optimize their yield and increase their profit in the light of rising feed and production expenses,” and the operative verb in that sentence is “has been set.” By the time readers reach that verb, though, they would no doubt be already gasping for air and would likely have lost track of what the sentence is all about.*
Three years ago, a reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times asked me how best to deal with monstrously long noun forms like that. He sent me a sentence with a 15-word noun form that, although less than half as long as the 32-word behemoth I presented above, was no less troublesome from both the sentence construction and reading comprehension standpoints. I wrote the essay below to show him how to make such a sentence more manageable, and I am now posting it in the Forum for your guidance when you encounter a similar exasperatingly hard-to-grasp sentence. (November 20, 2010).
*As a grammar exercise after you’ve read the essay below, I want you to make that problematic sentence more manageable and easier to understand. E-mail your improved versions to me at email@example.com and I’ll publish them in the next edition of the Forum. The early-bird Forum member who sends the best sentence reconstructions will get an autographed copy of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge as a reward; the early-bird non-Forum member who does the same will get an autographed copy of my earlier book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. Please don’t forget to indicate your name and mailing address in your entry (I won’t publish them if you wish to remain incognito). OFFER NO LONGER VALID
Go for it!
Problems with long noun forms
A reader in India, Surajit Dasgupta, had asked me for advice on how to deal with the problems he was encountering with long noun forms:
“Would you please take up how to deal with sentences with long subjects in your column? I frequently come across this situation, as in this example: ‘Isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations have been reported.’
“How do I reduce the length of the subject?
“In one of your past columns that briefly dealt with this topic, you suggested that the long subject be broken up. I tried it with the sentence above, but the resulting sentence doesn’t sound natural. Look: ‘Isolated instances have been reported of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.’”
My open reply to Surajit:
The problem with sentences with a very long noun form as subject is that the operative verb comes too late to execute the action, making such sentences confusing and difficult to read.
Let’s closely examine the example presented: “Isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations have been reported.”
Here, the subject is this 15-word noun phrase, “isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations,” and the operative verb is “have been reported.” By the time we reach the last word of that noun phrase, of course, we may already be gasping for air and may have already forgotten what the subject was all about. We then have to go back to the beginning of the noun phrase to regain our semantic bearings, thus losing time and reading momentum.
This early, however, I must strongly caution against reducing the length of the noun phrase to solve this problem, for it can alter the semantics of the sentence very seriously.
Instead, we should first consider breaking the long noun form into what is called a discontinuous phrase. This will allow the operative verb to be introduced earlier in the sentence so it can execute its action sooner, as was done in the following sentence: “A report without attribution reached the newsroom that the high-flying finance company was about the declare bankruptcy.” This sentence has a little rough edge to it, but it reads and sounds better than the original sentence that allowed the 14-word noun phrase to run its full course before coming up with its operative verb: “A report without attribution that the high-flying finance company was about the declare bankruptcy reached the newsroom.”
The discontinuous-phrase rewrite of Surajit’s sentence, though, doesn’t do as well: “Isolated instances have been reported of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.” It is confusing and it sounds bad because the long noun phrase got disjointed semantically when it was made into a discontinuous phrase.
A much better option in this case is to construct the sentence by using the much-maligned expletive “there” up front: “There have been reports of isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.” This is semantically and structurally superior to the discontinuous-phrase option, but expect many grammarians to frown on it on the ground that using the expletive “there” weakens the action of the operative verb.
That leaves us only one other option: using the active voice for the problematic sentence. It’s the best option really, but it will require the sentence to specify the doer of the action. Assuming that it’s the ANC (the ABS-CBN news channel), we can do the following straightforward construction: “The ANC has reported isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations.”
That sentence looks good and reads very well—strong proof that putting sentences in the active voice is our best option for dealing with problems with long noun forms. (June 18, 2007)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 18, 2007 issue © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.