Errors and Omissions: Lost on a meandering trail of confusing clauses

Our letters editor takes to task this week's Independent coverage

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The Independent Online

Long sentences with multiple clauses can be hard work for the reader. That is reason enough to avoid them, but they can also confuse the writer – which is worse.

This is from an article about Tennessee Williams, published on Monday: “By the time of his death in a hotel room in 1983, the man who bagged a couple of Pulitzer Prizes – for Streetcar in 1947 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 – had not had a Broadway hit since Night of the Iguana in 1961.”

All that stuff about various Pulitzer Prizes, shoved into the middle of the sentence, blinds the writer to a confusion.

“By the time of his death in 1983 … [he] had not had a Broadway hit since 1961” does not make sense. The state of not having had a hit since 1961 had existed ever since 1961; it did not come into existence just in time for Williams’s death in 1983.

The sentence needs to say: “By the time of his death in 1983… he had not had a Broadway hit for 22 years.” Alternatively, recast the sentence without “by the time of”.

Rhodri Marsden, in his Geek Mythology column on Thursday, wrote: “Twenty years ago technology companies beseeched us to do their bidding.” And this is from a news story published last Saturday: “Both thrived on constant reinvention.”

I do not stigmatise either of those sentences as wrong, because you see “beseeched” and “thrived” all the time. I merely record the sadness of the Society for the Preservation of English Irregular Verbs at the apparent demise of “besought”, “throve” and “thriven”.

Whenever an irregular past tense or participle is superseded by a version formed in the usual way, adding -ed to the present tense, a little bit of colour fades out of the language. And those who love the forms of words have suffered a small defeat at the hands of the barbarians who view language merely as encoded information.

“A free album on iTunes: what could possible go wrong?” asked a headline last Saturday. What indeed?

There is no point of grammatical principle here, just a reminder that spellcheckers, useful though they are, will not save you from typing the wrong word (“possible” for “possibly”). We are left with the sub-editor’s eternal reflection: “There, but for the grace of God...”

Here is another headline from Saturday’s paper: “Yes voters grieve the Scotland that could have been.”

Close, but no cigar. The direct object of the verb “grieve”, when it has one, is, oddly enough, the person doing the grieving. As Scotland’s bard wrote: “Who shall say that Fortune grieves him?”

The Yes voters are grieved by their defeat. Or they grieve for the Scotland that could have been. Or they mourn the Scotland that could have been. In fact, almost anything would do except “grieve the Scotland that could have been”.