Author Topic: The reference word strategy as Rx for avoiding tedium in composition  (Read 8079 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4653
  • Karma: +206/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
As the second in a series of pointers for crafting more readable and compelling compositions, I am posting in this week’s edition of the Forum the essay below, “Using noun omission to avoid repetition,” that I wrote for my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times in early 2004. The essay discusses the reference word strategy, which is a conscious effort on the part of the writer to avoid the excessive repetition of certain key words or phrases in a composition so as not to bore the reader. Instead, the writer methodically replaces them with the so-called reference words, which are more concise words or phrases that the reader can easily figure out from the relationships of the phrases in the sentence or from the context of the composition itself.

I’m sure that many of us already use the reference word strategy perhaps even without becoming conscious of it, but it should improve our writing when we become even more systematic and precise in making use of it in our compositions.

Using noun omission to avoid repetition

Most of us hate the icky feeling of seeing or hearing the same word over and over again in the same statement, as in this case: “This cellular phone comes in three colors. The first of the colors is gray, the second of the colors is beige, and the third of the colors is blue.” Some writers or speakers who come up with such constructions wrongly assume that by repeating the phrase “of the colors” three times in a row to reinforce the phrase “in three colors” in the first sentence, they are making themselves crystal clear. On the contrary, they just make themselves boringly repetitive.

A good way to avoid this construction bind is to use the reference word strategy. This is the active effort of preventing the needless recurrence of certain words or phrases in our prose by methodically using more concise words or phrases in their place. These replacements, called reference words, are not the kind we usually hunt for in dictionaries or thesauruses. Reference words are those that we can figure out logically from the relationships of the phrases in the sentence itself, or those that we can readily deduce from their contexts.

One of these reference word strategies is the noun omission technique, where we avoid the recurrent use of a noun by using the following words in its place: (1) “one,” “another,” and “the other” for three singular count nouns in consecutive order; and (2) the nouns “some,” “others,” and “the others” (or “the rest”) in place of the plural count adjectives “some,” “other,” and “the other” that we normally use right before plural count nouns to modify them. After the noun omission process, however, we must keep in mind that these words become pronouns and cease to work as adjectives.

Of course, the technique of using “one,” “another,” and “the other” in place of three singular count nouns in consecutive order should already be second nature to us. Thus, we know that the repetitive statement at the beginning of this column can take this more concise, more forceful form: “This cellular phone comes in three colors. One is gray, another is beige, and the other is blue.” We should also be very familiar with the technique of organizing our sentences when only two singular count nouns in consecutive order are involved. All we have to do is use “one” and “the other” in tandem: “This cellular phone comes in two colors. One is gray; the other is blue.”

While we are at it, we might as well answer this question: What happens if there are more than three singular count nouns in consecutive order—say, if there are four or six of them? As most of us already know, we simply use the already familiar numerical order technique: “This cellular phone comes in four colors. The first is gray, the second is beige, the third is blue, and the fourth [or last] is green.” Or we can use a serial numbering sequence: “This cellular phone comes in six colors. Color number 1 is gray, 2 is beige, 3 is blue, 4 is green, 5 is pink, and 6 is maroon.” It’s really all that simple.

Things are only a little bit different when we deal with three or more plural count nouns in consecutive order. For instance, if we didn’t use noun omission as a reference word strategy, we might come up with a longwinded sentence like this: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible, other presidential aspirants are obviously unqualified, and other presidential aspirants are simply nuisance candidates.” Using the noun omission technique, we can boil down the sentence to this more concise and more elegant form: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible, others are obviously unqualified, and the rest are simply nuisance candidates.”

We can also use elliptical construction to make the sentence even more concise, this time by eliminating the repetitive verb “are” after the first noun clause: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible, others obviously unqualified, and the rest simply nuisance candidates.” In a sense, noun omission as reference word strategy is another form of elliptical sentence construction, which, we will remember, is the grammar technique of eliminating certain obvious elements in a sentence in a way that doesn’t distort its meaning.

Some caveats when using noun omission for three or more plural count nouns in consecutive order: (1) Never use the word “another” instead of “other” before a plural count noun; thus, this sentence is grammatically wrong: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible; another presidential aspirants are obviously unqualified.” (The correct way: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible; other presidential aspirants are obviously unqualified.”); (2) The phrases “the rest” and “the rest of the” are inviolate; they cannot be shortened to “rest” or “rest of them”; thus, this sentence is unacceptable: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible, others are obviously unqualified, and rest are simply nuisance candidates.” (The correct way: “Some of the presidential aspirants are credible, other presidential aspirants are obviously unqualified, and the rest are simply nuisance candidates.”).
----------------
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 12, 2004 issue © 2004 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 54 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.