Bad-sentence Overhaul


Here, slightly disguised, is a sentence from an article I had to edit some time ago. The article was about a couple, how they met, and how they made their relationship work.

Supporting each other through their education and in their career dreams has been a vein running through their 10-year relationship that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist.

You’d be surprised how often I see stuff like this, penned by professional writers no less. Somehow, their words just get away from them and the result is a sort of a swamp of nondescript thoughts that never take shape.

 It can happen to the best of us. And, when you find out that your clear, simple ideas turn to something like this on the page, the best thing to do is to start looking for subjects and verbs. Once you’ve identified the main doer and the main action in each sentence, you’ll be able to decide whether they’re saying what you wanted to say.

In this sentence, the subject is the gerund “supporting.” Bad call. Gerunds, which are “ing” forms of verbs functioning as nouns, turn dynamic actions into static things. Sometimes this is fine, as in “Jogging is great exercise.” But often it’s just a sort of vague abstraction that doesn't crystallize in the reader’s mind.

The main verb of this sentence is “is,” which is a fine verb. But look what it attaches our subject to: “a vein.” So the main point of our sentence is “Supporting is a vein.” True: In context, it’s not quite so nonsensical. But it’s still abstract and borderline meaningless.

 When you start looking for other verbs, you find “continues” and “pursues.” (“Running” in this sentence isn’t functioning as a verb or even as a noun. It’s really working as an adjective  – a participial modifier describing the word “vein.”) The verb “continues” is part of the larger thought “a vein that continues through their relationship.” So that action is subordinated -- stuck in a relative clause. “Pursues” in “Jones pursues her dreams” is a decent verb, I suppose, but it’s subordinated by the conjunction “as,” which allowed the writer to sort of weld this idea on to the rest of the sentence.

And once I scrutinized these clauses individually, I found other ways to write this.

 “Supporting is a vein” had to go. I reworded the passage to convey the idea buried within: Throughout their 10-year relationship, Jones and Wilson have supported each other’s education and career goals.

 Here the subject is actual people. Supporting is now an action instead of a vague concept. And, better yet, now that we haven’t wasted a whole clause on stating the existence of a “vein,” we don’t need to say it "continues." It’s clear with just one clause that they continue to support each other.

 I still had to find a way to work in the information that Jones was pursuing her dream of becoming a therapist. But that one simple thought could now fit anywhere. I found a good spot a few sentences down after a bit about their history: Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.

 So whenever you find yourself staring down a world-class Frankensentence, just break it up and take a cold, hard look at the parts. Usually, that’s all it takes to turn it into something real.

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One Response to “Bad-sentence Overhaul”

  1. Ah, a Frankensentence! I never knew what those things were called before. Like you, I've seen many of them lurching through a paragraph and stopping it dead in its tracks.