Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Grammar by thunderbolt

Here's how life looks from the vantage point of the reporting textbook:
The readers of one newspaper once confronted the following one-sentence paragraph:

"Paradoxically, cancer-causing mutations often result from the repair of a cell by error-prone enzymes and not the 'carcinogenic' substance's damage to the cell," Abe Eisenstark, director of biological sciences at the university, said at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Council of Environmental Carcinogenesis Wednesday night at the Cancer Research Center.

If there is a message in those 53 words, it would take a copy editor, a lexicologist and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist to decipher it. The message simply is not clear.
It's fun to be part of your own Dan Brown novel, isn't it? Oops, left the lexicologist behind somewhere along the Friedrichstrasse! Depending on what kind of science the "Nobel Prize-winning scientist" does, I'm not sure we need her either, because I'm not sure whether the problem -- whatever it is that makes this message so "not clear" -- is in the sciency part of the sentence or the J101 part.

The first half seems pretty straightforward: Weird as it may seem, sometimes the problem isn't the cancer-causing substance but the well-meaning efforts of your damn bumbling enzymes to fix the damage. (Honk if those enzymes have worked on your car at some point.) As long as you don't mind a few words like "carcinogenic" (you are reading an article about cancer, after all) and "paradoxically" (since the speaker is introducing a bit of a paradox), it's hard to see why this bit would be singled out.

Now, granted, we have a 53-word sentence here (counting the hypenated compounds as two words each), and it weights in at 27.9 on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale that Microsoft kindly provides. But most of those words come after the science part ends -- in other words, the part where it starts sounding like a news sentence piling in everything it can.* Pretend for a moment that it's two sentences:

"Paradoxically, cancer-causing mutations often result from the repair of a cell by error-prone enzymes and not the 'carcinogenic' substance's damage to the cell," he said.

Abe Eisenstark, director of biological sciences at the university, spoke at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Council of Environmental Carcinogenesis Wednesday night at the Cancer Research Center.


The first gets a 16.8 on the grade level scale, and the second an 18.9; as a paragraph, they land at 17.8. I'm not going to suggest that we follow Flesch and Kincaid off into the sunset, but I think we could reasonably hope to hack our way out of a prepositional thicket like that one without invoking lexicology and Science.

What actually sent me off to the bookshelves for that particular text was this sentence in Monday's fishwrap:

It has been assumed that Ilitch, the owner of the Red Wings and Tigers, would buy the Pistons ever since he entered into an exclusive 30-day negotiating period early last month with Karen Davidson and Palace Sports & Entertainment to buy the franchise that Forbes values at $479 million — although it’s believed the eventual purchase price will be lower.

Like the first, it requires you to bring a little knowledge to the table before you start: how an "exclusive 30-day negotiating period" works, for example. And there are a couple of passive verbs -- one of them following an especially ill-turned restrictive clause -- that demand a lot of trust in the writer. All in, it's only fractionally lower on the Flesch-Kincaid scale (26.4) than the sentence that required a whole legion of superheroes.

Why does one sentence call down the wrath of the academy while the other is (pretty literally) journalistic business as usual? I think, again, that it goes back to some fundamental misunderstandings about how we teach "grammar" and the related arts. "Clarity" isn't a property that mere mortals can achieve by themselves, perhaps by identifying a train wreck of prepositional phrases and diverting some of the subsequent traffic elsewhere. There's nothing you can take away for next time: no indication of what makes "the message" of a sentence unclear, no hints for how the novice might look for ways to cluster all those grammatically correct chunks of information elsewhere in less obtrusive ways.

I think we need to bring "clarity" down from the mountaintop and show people how to make use of it on the ground. The gods are having a lot of fun hurling thunderbolts, but they aren't contributing much to the cause.

* Aw, go ahead and guess what textbook J-students at "the university" use.

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2 Comments:

OpenID outerhoard said...

Yeah, not hugely hard to understand, just slightly so (i.e. you probably need to read it twice).

Still, I'd probably paraphrase the quote a little: "Paradoxically, when a carcinogenic substance damages a cell, cancer-causing mutations often result not from the damage itself but from repairs by error-prone enzymes."

7:24 AM, November 19, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

One of the genuinely useful (to my mind, at least) things the Flesch-Kincaid thing does is put a quantifiable face on the mythology about journalism and the "eighth-grade level" it allegedly writes to. Lots of stuff that isn't hard to understand at all -- or, as you suggest, gives up pretty easily on a second read -- gets really thick by the time it's been second-cycled and given all the appropriate professional treatment.

I really like having a button to push to underscore the silliness of the standard triple-participle AP weather-disaster lede, which ends: "... flooding roads, uprooting trees and knocking out power to thousands."

12:14 AM, November 23, 2010  

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